If there was any question about whether or not Jesus’ kingdom ethic is counter-cultural, the Sermon on the Mount should remove those doubts. Jesus is speaking to his disciples about what it means to live as a citizen of a different kingdom. He repeatedly reminds his listeners of the conventional wisdom of their day. He starts his commands with “you have heard that it was said.” So familiar is this phrase to most Christians, that we may be tempted to overlook what he is doing here. Jesus lays the wisdom of the world, the norms of their sin-twisted culture, on the table, “you have heard that it was said.” Then he launches a second volley. Every time, he begins his next sentence with the words, “but I tell you.”
Conventional wisdom only goes so far. The Kingdom of God is not based on conventional wisdom, and the same one who delivered the words that created the cosmos lays down a new ethic for his kingdom citizens.
Perhaps the hardest of these commands is the final one: love your enemies.
“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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5: 43-45).
This final “you have heard it said” makes clear Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament law itself but instead correcting misinterpretations and abuses. The command to love your neighbor is very clearly spelled out in several places in the Bible. However, nowhere do the Scriptures get close to saying it is okay to hate your enemies. Instead, this was an assumption based off the previous statement to love your neighbor. Conventional wisdom said you were only responsible for loving your neighbor, so that meant you could hate your personal enemies. In fact, it was this very abuse of the law we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke. The “expert in the law” starts his conversation by trying to justify himself. He asks Jesus to tell him just exactly who his neighbor was. His purpose was not knowing who to love but who it was okay to hate. Jesus calls out and corrects this abuse. Then he surpasses the Old Testament command with an ethic aimed at the heart.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For the disciples of Christ, active love is the appropriate response to our enemies. A person’s enemy in this passage is someone who sets themselves against a Christian, because they are a Christian. Earlier in this same chapter Jesus explains this. He says, “You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11).
You will only run into these kinds of enemies if you actually out yourself as a Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is assuming followers who share the gospel with others. To Jesus, you’re not a follower if you are not proclaiming the same message he was. Followers do the same thing as the person they follow… that’s what following means. If you can’t remember the last time you actually shared the gospel with someone who is not a Christian, then you’ve got something to work on before you can even apply this part of the passage. But when you do, and when you begin to speak out the good news of the kingdom, to invite people to join Christ in his kingdom, then you will experience the enemies Jesus has in mind.
There will be opposition, and it will get personal. People will slander you, call you foolish because of what you believe. They may even question your intelligence. Let’s face it, cultural Christianity is on it’s way out the door, and the very things we hold to be moral, the world around us calls immoral. What we call a right to life, the world calls oppression of women’s rights. When we want to uphold the sanctity of marriage, we’re told we’re being bigots. And when we say that immigrants are people too, made in the same image of God that we are, we’re told we don’t love our country. Gone are the days when claiming you were a Christian made you part of the mainstream. We live in an outrage culture, and conventional wisdom mires us down into the division.
If you are going to follow Jesus, which means doing what he did and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to others, then you will make these kinds of enemies. But Jesus is clear, Christians love their enemies. We pray blessings for our enemies. When was the last time your knee-jerk reaction was to pray for someone who was purposely opposing you because of your faith?
It is easy to love the people that are just like you, that believe like you. It is easy to spend all of your time talking to those people. In fact, it’s easy to spend your time with those people talking bad about the people that don’t like you. Jesus asks, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same” (Matt. 5:47)?
We’re called to a totally different kind of life, because we are citizens of a different kingdom. We are called to reach out to our enemies in active love, despite the attacks that come our way. Jesus says to love your enemies. Don’t be gracious only to those who agree with you. Extend grace even to your enemies, especially to your enemies.