Righteousness: loving

sermon-on-the-mount43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? 48 So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Love Extends to the Enemy. The opening phrase, You shall love your neighbor is from Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus quotes in a fuller form at 19:19 and 22:39. The prominence of the commandment to love in Jesus’ teaching, and especially in Matthew’s presentation of it, is well-known. Here the question is the extent of its application (as in Luke 10:25–37, where the parable of the Good Samaritan is also introduced as a comment on Lev. 19:18). The neighbor of Leviticus 19:18 was the fellow-Israelite, but a very different attitude was required towards those of a hostile community (Deut. 23:3–6; cf. Ps. 139:21–22), even though a personal enemy was to be treated with consideration (Exod. 23:4–5; 1 Sam. 24:19; Prov. 25:21) and an individual non-Israelite was to be made welcome (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19).

There is no command to hate the enemy in the Old Testament, yet there are statements that God “hates all evildoers” (Ps 5:5; cf. 31:6) and statements that imply that others do, and should do, the same (Deut 23:3-7; 30:7; Pss 26:5; 139:21-22). The primary meaning is not aimed at personal vindictiveness or disdain, but at the religious rejection of those who do not belong to God’s people and keep God’s law. The group of insiders to be loved is constituted by the religious community; outsiders who are “hated” are those who do not belong.”‘

The Matthean Jesus makes love of God and neighbor the fundamental command on which all else depends, and makes the command to love enemies specific and concrete – the litmus test if you will. In its absoluteness and concreteness, it is without parallel in Hellenistic culture or Judaism. The command should not be understood only abstractly, “love all people, including even enemies.” In Jesus’ situation it referred par­ticularly to the occupying Roman forces, and thus to national enemies as well as to competing relig­ious groups and personal enemies. For Matthew the focal instance was the concrete situation of the persecuted Matthean community in its time.

But such a concrete point of orientation then moves universally so that love (agape) reigns above all. Jesus bases the command not on a humanitar­ian ideal, a doctrine of human rights, or a strategy or utilitarian purpose (to win the enemy over) but

  • only on his authority to set his own command in juxtaposition to the Law (5:43),
  • on the nature of God who loves all impartially (5:45), and
  • on the promise of eschatological reward (5:46).

The idea of reward is not mere selfishness, but a dimension of Jesus’ fundamental proclama­tion of the present and coming kingdom as the basis for the radical life-style to which he calls his disciples. Thus “that you may be children [huioi] of your heavenly Father ” also represents Mat­thew’s inaugurated eschatology: Your conduct must be appropriate to your status as sons/chil­dren of God, which you already are (6:4, 6; cf. v. 18), and which will be revealed and acknow­ledged by God at the last judgment (cf. 5:9).  And this love will issue in prayer for the persecutors; it is not just a sentimental feeling, but an earnest desire for their good.

So what if you love only as everyone else? These verses develop the idea of loving one’s enemies by first comparing such love to God’s love for people (5:45) and then by asking two rhetorical questions that call on disciples to practice a higher righteousness than tax collectors and pagans do (5:46–47). A parochial concern is characteristic of the world. If a disciple is to find his recompense, he must not just be on a level with other men; he must do more (cf. v. 20, where the same root perisson is used, and the ultimate development of this more in the perfect of v. 48). Tax collectors and Gentiles are bracketed together again in 18:17. The (Jewish) tax collectors, as an ostracized minority, formed a close-knit group. Jesus’ positive attitude elsewhere to tax collectors (9:9–13; 11:19; 21:31–32) and Gentiles (8:10–11) contrasts with the pejorative use of the terms here and in 18:17; their use as colloquial expressions, readily understood in current Jewish society, for ‘outsiders’ or ‘undesirables’ cannot therefore be pressed into an endorsement of the very type of discrimination which it is the aim of these verses to condemn. Brothers will in context denote primarily fellow-disciples, as generally in Matthew: the love Jesus requires extends outside the ‘in-group’ to its opponents.

Summary. The ‘greater righteousness’ demanded in v. 20 has been illustrated in vv. 21ff., and is now summed up (therefore) in one all-embracing demand. The demand is that disciples (you is emphatic, in contrast with the tax collectors and Gentiles of vv. 46–47 and the scribes and Pharisees of v. 20) must be perfect (teleioi). This is the ‘more’ required in v. 47. Cf. 19:20–21, where again teleios (its only other use in Matthew) indicates God’s requirement which goes beyond legal conformity. (There too Lev. 19:18 is superseded by this more radical demand.) Teleios is wider than moral perfection: it indicates ‘completeness’, ‘wholeness’ (cf. Paul’s use of it for the spiritually ‘mature’ in 1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Phil. 3:15), a life totally integrated to the will of God, and thus reflecting his character. It is probably derived here from the lxx of Deuteronomy 18:13, which, with the repeated formula of Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26 (‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’), is echoed in Jesus’ words. The conformity to the character of God, to which Israel was called in their role as God’s special people (see especially Lev. 20:26), is now affirmed as the goal of the disciples of Jesus. It is an ideal set before all disciples, not a special status of those who claim to have achieved ‘sinless perfection’ in this life; neither here nor in 19:20–21 is there a suggestion of a two-level ethic for the ordinary disciple and the ‘perfect’.



Matthew 5:43 hate: in biblical parlance does not necessarily imply personal hostility, but may mean “not choose; consider an outsider” (cf. Matt 6:24; Luke 14:26; Rom 9:13)

Matthew 5:46 pray for those who persecute you: Praying for one’s persecutors is a striking demonstration of one’s love for them (cf. Luke 23:34; Acts 7:59–60). This, too, is anticipated in the OT (Gen 20:17–18; Exod 23:4–5; Num 12:13; 21:7; 1 Sam 24:17–19; Job 31:29; Ps 7:3–5; Prov 24:17–18; 25:21–22; Jer 29:7; Jonah 4:10–11).


Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 193-98

Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 150-57

R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 217-29

R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 130-35

Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 82-93

Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 871

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 195-205

John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 45-55

Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 91-97

Dictionaries –Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

  1. Fiebig, angareuō, 1:12
  2. Balz, anthistēmi, 1:99
  3. Rebell, chitōna, 3:468
  4. Radl, himation, 2:187

Scripture – The New American Bible

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