It seems like everything Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount could be considered revolutionary. But what He said about loving our enemies might top the list. When it comes to our adversaries, Jesus' words are both inspiring and challenging, simultaneously encouraging and convicting us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:43–45).
Who are our enemies?
When we wrestle with Jesus' words, it's critical that we consider the context. When Jesus mentioned "enemies" to first-century Jews, they didn't think about the annoying guy at the market or the woman who argues with them outside the synagogue.
Their minds naturally drifted toward the "evil" Samaritans, and the Romans they eventually hoped to overthrow. As a people, the Israelites had legitimate enemies. That's something that many of us lack. Pause a moment to take an inventory of your enemies. Most of us can come up with a few people we find irritating or we don't get along with, but would we really call them enemies?
It's hard enough for us to love people we find bothersome, let alone our enemies. But here was Jesus telling His Jewish audience to love the people they hated. Love the people who mistreated them. Pray for those who actively persecuted them.
Years later, these words would take on extra meaning for the disciples. Every one of them but John would end up giving their lives for Jesus. The enemies of the gospel would become their enemies, and Jesus' words would take on an added layer of significance when applied to those who were willing to kill them to put an end to the church.
This is a critical challenge to the modern church. Many of us will never face that level of persecution for the sake of the gospel, and we still struggle to love those who simply disagree with us.
Becoming children of heaven
When we read Jesus' words, it's easy to misinterpret them. We're used to thinking about the personal implications of putting them into practice. When we discuss His commands to forgive, we tend to focus on how it will make us feel or its benefit to our lives. Because of that, we often think about the Sermon on the Mount in practical terms—reasonable instructions that will result in a constructive end.
And while we will benefit from putting Jesus' words into practice, it's often not in the way we desire. Jesus didn't instruct us to love our enemies in order to change their hearts. It definitely could happen, but that wasn't His goal.
Jesus very clearly spells out why it's important to love our enemies. It's so we may be "children of [y]our Father in heaven." We don't love those who hate us to get what we want or to manipulate a situation. We do it because that's what children of heaven do. That's what it means to be citizens of God's kingdom.
Jesus reminds us that God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." He doesn't withhold rain from Samaritan farmers during Judea's dry season. He doesn't hide the sun from Roman centurions. God blesses the righteous and the unrighteous alike and expects us to do the same.
Demonstrating the character of Christ
This is something that we're regularly reminded of in the New Testament. Jesus is our benchmark for Christian living. Not only does He empower us to live victoriously (John 15:4), but He's also the example that we are to follow.
Peter reminds us of this in his first Epistle when he talks about how Christians should respond to suffering, "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21, emphasis added). Jesus' life is the pattern we're to follow. He was the archetype of kingdom living.
This is why Paul tells us:
"In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
"And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5–8)!
We can't think of the Sermon on the Mount as some means to an end. That makes Jesus' teaching too easy to abandon when it doesn't give us the outcome we hoped for. We need to think about as a call to "have the same mindset as Christ Jesus." We love our enemies to become like Jesus, and not necessarily to secure a blessing from Jesus.
And in case there is any question about what we should learn about love from Jesus' example. John makes it clear, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters" (1 John 3:16).
Loving those who love you
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to say:
"If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:46–48).
When someone asks us if we're loving, we tend to think about how we treat those we're closest to. Are we a good spouse? Do we encourage and support our children? Can our friends count on us? Jesus suggests that's probably not the right question.
It's no secret that tax collectors were despised in first-century Judea. They were Jews who worked on behalf of Rome, collecting taxes from fellow Israelites. Not only were they looked down upon for facilitating Rome's economic oppression, but they would live off the extra money they cheated from the people.
The average Israelite wouldn't give a tax collector credit for going home and loving his wife or playing with his kids. He couldn't point at his hospitality toward his friends as a sign that he's a loving person. Tax collectors were universally hated because of how they treated others. It's critical that we remember that the most awful people in history had loved ones—even Hitler had a girlfriend.
As citizens of the kingdom, we're called to exemplify the character of God. The Lord's love isn't reserved for those who love Him. Even as He's crucified, He prays for His tormentors (Luke 23:34). His love is perfect, and Jesus challenges His followers not to be satisfied with a love that's simply "good enough."
All Scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.