daily biblical sermons


The distinctive mark of a Christian is to love not only our friends, but also our enemies
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Saturday, First Week of Lent, February 27, 2021
Deuteronomy 26:16-19, Psalm 118, Matthew 5:43-48


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

“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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

 

 

Today Jesus seems to be contrasting his own teaching to that of the scribes and Pharisees, when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matthew 5:43), for this is not the teaching of the Old Testament. The Old Testament teaches us that we should love our neighbor and also be kind and loving to our enemy. So, Jesus is purifying and clarifying God’s original revelation in the Old Testament by removing the false additions to it made by the Jewish oral tradition and the scribes and Pharisees, for it seems that they taught that we should hate our enemies.

 

 

So, what does the Old Testament actually say about our enemies? It says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). The Old Testament also teaches, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

 

 

The Old Testament teaches us to love our enemies, saying, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). The coals of fire seem to refer to putting him to shame by treating him in a loving way.

 

 

The book of Exodus says that we should treat our enemies with kindness, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up” (Exodus 23:4-5).

 

 

The Old Testament teaches us that we should not hate anyone, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).

 

 

We should not confuse these beautiful Old Testament teachings with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites at the command of the Lord, whereby they were to destroy many of these Canaanite peoples and destroy their false religion. This was a onetime command at one period in Israel’s history in order that God might give them the promised land, which they had to fight for.

 

 

But otherwise, they were to love their enemies and also love foreigners. Apparently, this beautiful teaching got put under a shadow by the scribes and Pharisees with whom Jesus is arguing, and so in today’s gospel he tells the people that what the scribes and Pharisees are teaching is not good, and is not what he himself is teaching – nor is it what God taught in the Old Testament.

 

 

So, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said [by the scribes and Pharisees], ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45).

 

 

Jesus not only teaches that we should love and pray for our enemies, but he also practiced it in his own life, for when he was dying on the cross, he prayed for those that were crucifying him, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

 

 

St. Stephen, in imitation of Jesus, prayed for those who were stoning him to death. “He knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:60). St. Paul tells us, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14). He also says, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13).

 

 

We should do the same. But this is no easy matter, for we naturally love lovable people who are our friends and whom we naturally like and are attracted to, but we do not have the same feelings towards everyone. But Jesus is speaking “of the will and not primarily of the emotions. It is not the same as natural affection because it is not natural to love those who hate and harm you. It is a supernatural grace and can be manifested only by those who have divine life” (William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1989), page 1223, emphasis added).

 

 

Since loving our friends and people whom we find lovable requires no effort, there is no great virtue in loving them. There is, however, great virtue in loving those for whom we do not feel a natural liking. Yes, we should love our friends, but if we are Christians, we should also love our enemies, which is much harder to do. This is the challenge that our faith poses for us.

 

 

I think that most of us will have to stop at this point and say, “My God, how far I have fallen short of this command of Jesus!”

 

 

“There are few passages of Scripture so calculated to raise in our minds humbling thoughts. We have here a lovely picture of the Christian as he ought to be. We cannot look at it without painful feelings, we must all allow that it differs widely from the Christian as he is” (JC Ryle, 1856, emphasis in the text).

 

 

Jesus says today, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Not that imitating God’s indiscriminate love for everyone, both good and bad, will make us his sons, any more than imitating any good man that we happen to see will make us his son. Sonship comes from being born of a man’s seed, or, in terms of God, from being born again through faith. So Jesus’ meaning is that we who are born again through faith in Jesus Christ and thereby have become God’s adopted sons should imitate our heavenly Father and be loving to everyone, as he is, whether they are good or bad (John Gill, 1697-1771).

 

 

So, what should we do? Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).

 

 

Even criminals and pagans greet and love those that greet and love them. If that’s all we do, we are no better than a pagan or a criminal. Jesus calls us not to be like pagans and criminals, but to be like God himself, saying, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

 

 

This final verse about being perfect as God is perfect must be understood in the present context, namely that we are to be like God in indiscriminately loving, praying for, and doing good to everyone, even if he is an enemy that harms us. God does this when he shines his sun on both good and bad people and sends his rain to both the just and the unjust. We are to imitate God in behaving this way, because we are now his adopted sons. This does not, however, mean that we can be equal to God himself, but that we must be like God in his indiscriminate love of everyone.

 

 

We are now in Lent, and one of the purposes of Lent is to humble us and make us realize how far we have fallen short of what God expects of us as Christians so that we can repent during this season of repentance and intend to amend our life and come to Christ with faith that he might declare and thereby make us ungodly sinners righteous by his atoning death for our sins on the cross.

 

 

This reading, I think, is very successful in showing us how far we have fallen short of what God expects of us. Most people will read this gospel and say, “Yes, I’ve got a lot to learn here, for I have not lived out this gospel teaching very well.”

 

 

Let us end with a prayer, “Help us, O Lord, to love not only our friends, but also our enemies, and be loving to everyone we meet, as you are loving to all people.”

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