True Love

This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we considered whether Jesus is asking Christian discipleship to move beyond what the dominant culture anticipates and expects. Today we extend that thought as love of the enemy is discussed. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…”

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

  1. only on his authority to set his own command in juxtaposition to the Law (5:43),
  2. on the nature of God who loves all impartially (5:45), and
  3. 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 at 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.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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