Everybody Has Forgotten How Radical this Biblical Passage Is
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Jesus said to his disciples:
“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,
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.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
This passage, one of the antinomies in Matthew, just changes the entire purview on suffering. It’s thoroughgoingly amazing.
Contrast the Gospel passage with 1 Kings 21:17-29, where Elijah goes and delivers this prophecy to Ahab. When Ahab gets the prophecy, he breaks down.
Because the prophecy initially is the lex talionis all the way, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. “You did this to Naboth, you’re going to get this and you’re going to get double, and your sons are going to get double.” It goes on and on.
And of course, the whole idea is strict justice will be exacted for this terrible injustice you have perpetrated.
And now we hear Jesus literally turning everything on its head – in two ways.
The first thing that Jesus says is look, love your enemies. In this way you’re going to be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect. What does our heavenly Father’s perfection consist in?
The most radical thing that defines the nature of God is that he loves his enemies. Even his enemies he loves unconditionally.
By the way, there’s a slight translation error there. It’s not “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect…” Otherwise we’d be dead and in Heaven. Rather it’s “be perfected as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is a slightly different nuance of the text.
So, our objective is to try to move, to be perfected as it were, ever more closely toward the Father who loves his enemies and loves them even unconditionally.
The world has changed. You can’t even imagine what this sounded like in first century Jerusalem. You can’t even imagine how different this is from the whole world view and conception they had, which Jesus correctly repeats and Moses validates: Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.
See How Jesus Stands the Idea of Suffering on Its Head
Number two, the second radical difference is suffering.
In the Old Testament viewpoint, even up through the time of Job suffering really is about God’s punishment of sin in past generations.
Of course, the idea of suffering is it’s God’s just punishment for the sins. It might have been you, might have been your father, might have been your grandfather, might have been your great-grandfather, down to the fourth generation. You don’t know where it came from, but one thing is sure, suffering’s a punishment for sin.
All of a sudden, Jesus says, no, that’s not it. “He causes his rain to fall on the just, as well as the unjust.” This is earthshaking. This is like taking an entire dyadic worldview and turning it upside down. And then he says “He causes his sun to shine, good things to happen on good, as well as evil people.” And of course, people are going, “This cannot be the case.”
And then Jesus tops it all off again with saying, in this consists the ultimate perfection of your heavenly Father, that he causes even good to happen to people who are evil.
He actually loves his enemies, and so he encourages us to pray for our enemies and to do good for those who hate us.
You look at that and the image of God has changed significantly. Jesus is superseding that, as it were, the “justice at all costs” view of God, the lex talionis, and is superseding it with the notion of God is unconditional love, Jesus himself as the unconditionally loving Son, and of course, the commandment to love as superseding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Truly, the good news for us, all of us who are imperfect. But of course, the challenge is to follow and be perfected in that love as we try to move through our lives.