“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Luke 6:27-28, 32-33
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what it means to be a follower of His. He lists the characteristics that His followers are to embody, and He describes how His followers are to exhibit their commitment to Him in the way that they live. Christ presents a new paradigm, a new model, by which His followers are to base their lives. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is the guidebook for living a Christian life.
Many things make Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount unique, an example being the authority with which He spoke. Usually, when rabbis would teach, they would appeal to the teachings of earlier rabbis to support the claims that they were making. Many of the rabbinic commentaries would have long passages giving various interpretations of the text by different rabbis. These passages would often begin with “Rabbi so-and-so would say,” and then give that rabbi’s commentary. Christ makes no such appeal to the authority of others; He is God, and He wrote the law. As a demonstration of His authority on these matters, He began His teaching with “but I say.” Matthew makes this rejection of the rabbinic interpretations even more clear in his gospel; he quotes Christ as saying “You have heard it was said to the ancient ones…” (Matthew 5:21). He is not referring to what God commanded the ancient Israelites, but to the interpretations and teachings of the rabbis and teachers that had been handed down from generation to generation. In many instances, the interpretation that the teachers came up with was a far cry from how God desired His people to enact His law. Christ, however, gives the authoritative teaching on the law in the Sermon on the Mount.
Christ’s interpretation and application of the law also set him apart from the rabbis of old. Many of the past rabbis, and some of the Pharisees contemporary to Jesus taught that since they were only required to love their neighbor, they were justified in hating their enemies. Christ debunks this flawed teaching, and He calls upon those who wish to follow Him to do the unthinkable–to love their enemies.
This call to love one’s enemies was radical, and Christ did not stop there. He called on His followers to do good, bless, and pray for those who do harm to them and speak poorly of them. Each of these commands goes against everything in one’s human nature; we do not want to do good for those who wish us harm, we do not want to pray for those who abuse us. These commands require that the Christ-follower be filled with a special sort of love–agape–a love which loves unconditionally, regardless of reciprocation. This is a love that only comes from God, and without being filled with this love, we cannot treat our enemies the way that Christ has taught us.
The command to love our enemies is foundational; everything else which we are to do for our enemy is built upon our love for them. It is this ability to love those who do not love us in return that separates the Christian from the sinner; sinners love those who love them back because that doesn’t require anything of them. That doesn’t require submitting to God and being filled with agape. Loving one’s enemies, however, requires humility and meekness and being refilled daily with God’s love. Living this sort of life–one which models meekness and humility, submission to God, and a love for one’s enemies–is what identifies the true believer. It is in living this sort of life that we demonstrate the change that God has made in our lives and reflect that we are His children.
“But I say, love your enemy. Do good for them, bless them, and pray for them.” This isn’t merely a suggestion; it is the command of God Himself.
Artwork: “Jesus Preaching on the Mount,” Gustave Dore, c. 1860-1870.