SYNOPSIS – Mercy and love are the defining characteristics of the disciple of Jesus and reflect the nature of God – Matthew 5:43-48.
Christians can be confused and even overwhelmed by the exhortation of Jesus given in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount – “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our tendency to assume that “perfect” refers to a standard of righteousness impossible for any human to attain – How can any man or woman ever hope to emulate the perfect righteousness of God?
(Matthew 5:43-48) – “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Be loving your enemies and praying for them who are persecuting you: That ye may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens: because his sun he maketh arise on evil and good, and sendeth rain on just and unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? are not even the tax-collectors the same thing doing? And if ye salute your brethren only, what more than common are ye doing? are not even the nations the same thing doing? Ye, therefore, shall become perfect: as your heavenly Father is perfect” – (The Emphasized Bible).
To understand these words of Jesus it is necessary to heed their context. They form part of the conclusion to a larger literary unit. Furthermore, the conjunction “therefore” connects the exhortation with what preceded it. The statement in verse 48 is a clarification of what Jesus just stated in verses 43-47, and the conclusion of the larger literary unit that began with his claim to fulfill the law and prophets.
As the Messiah, Jesus came in fulfillment of the Old Testament revelation – “The Law and the Prophets.” The Greek verb rendered “fulfill” translates pléroō, which means to “fill to the full, to fill up completely.” What was germinal and partial under the old order was brought to fruition in the life and teachings of the Son of God. However, with the arrival of the Son of God, now, unless one’s “righteousness exceeds more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he or she will not enter the messianic kingdom – (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus gave six examples of how one’s “righteousness” may surpass that of the “Scribes and Pharisees.” In each case, he did not simply reaffirm the Law of Moses; instead, he pierced behind the written regulations to discover the true intent of the Law, especially how his disciples must deal with others, including “enemies.”
For example, Jesus extrapolated from the prohibition of murder that one should not even harbor anger toward another man or woman – Hatred leads to murder. Instead of simply refusing to kill, his disciple must seek reconciliation with others, even with one’s “enemy”:
(Matthew 5:21-26) – “ You have heard that it was said to them of old time, You shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, You fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire. If, therefore, you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift before the altar and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Verily I say to you, You shall by no means come out thence, till you have paid the last farthing.”
To become more “righteous” than a scribe or Pharisee, a follower of Jesus must do more than simply abstain from adultery, theft or murder, the minimal requirement of the Torah. Life in the Kingdom of God demands something beyond the Mosaic regulations – (Matthew 5:27-32).
Jesus turned the law of “eye for an eye” into a command to “turn the other cheek.” He repudiated a popular interpretation that added the clause – “And hate your enemy” – to the love commandment. Since the book of Leviticus explicitly commanded love to fellow Israelites but omitted any mention of the Gentiles, so the logic went, the hatred of enemies was permissible – (Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus rejected this wrongheaded interpretation. Since the commandment prohibits any act of vengeance, plainly, the Law does not allow hatred for anyone, whether Jew or Gentile. A man takes vengeance against someone who acts against his interests; however, a disciple is called to love his enemies and pray for anyone who abuses him.
God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. This statement is derived from the final clause of Leviticus 19:18 – “I am Yahweh.” Giving mercy to both the deserving and the undeserving is fundamental to the nature of the One who revealed Himself as “Yahweh.”
If a disciple limits his love to friends and family, how is he any different than a tax collector or Gentile, let alone a scribe or Pharisee?
Showing love to enemies through concrete acts of mercy is how the righteousness of a disciple exceeds the “righteousness of the Scribes or Pharisees.” It is how the disciple “fulfills the Law and the Prophets,” emulates the “perfection” of God, and demonstrates that he or she is a child of the “Father in heaven.”
(Matthew 20:25-28) – “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your servant; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your slave: even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus provided the ultimate example of just such an act of mercy for friend and foe alike by sacrificing his life for both – “The Son of Man gave his life a ransom for many.” There is no place in his domain for hatred, violence, or retaliation, period.