Mercy and love are the defining characteristics of his disciple and reflect the true nature of his Father – Matthew 5:43-48.
Christians can be confused, even overwhelmed, by the exhortation found in the middle of Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – “Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We assume that “perfection” means conforming to a standard of righteousness that is impossible for any human. How can anyone ever hope to emulate the perfect righteousness of God?
But as Jesus explained, above all, his disciples emulate their heavenly Father through acts of mercy. Self-sacrificial love and showering mercy on others, especially on one’s enemy, goes to the very heart of his message and mission. After all, Christ willingly gave his life for others even when they were “enemies of God.”
- (Matthew 5:43-48) – “You have heard that it was said: You will you’re your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you: Be loving your enemies and praying for them who are persecuting you, that you may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens because He makes his sun rise on evil and good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward have you? Are not even the tax-collectors doing the same thing? And if you salute your brethren only, what more than common are you doing? Are not even the Gentiles doing the same thing? You, therefore, shall become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The conjunction “therefore” connects the final exhortation to what has preceded it (“therefore, become perfect”), his statement about loving enemies. It is precisely by doing so that the disciple becomes “perfect like his heavenly Father.” Moreover, the paragraph is the conclusion of the larger literary unit that began with his declaration that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets.
What was germinal under the Mosaic law came to fruition in the life and teachings of the Son of God. But with his arrival, unless the disciple’s “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” he will not enter the kingdom – (Matthew 5:17-20).
His declaration concerning the “law and prophets” was followed by six examples of how one’s “righteousness” surpasses that of the “scribes and Pharisees.” In each case, he did not simply reaffirm the Law of Moses, but he pierced through it to discover its true intent, and this especially comes to the surface in how disciples treat others.
For example, on his messianic authority, Jesus extrapolated from the prohibition of murder that one should not even harbor anger toward another man or woman. Hatred leads to murder, and instead of simply refusing to kill the disciple must seek reconciliation with others, even with one’s “enemy.” Evil is overcome by taking positive actions – (Matthew 5:21-26).
Likewise, his disciple must do more than just abstain from adultery, theft or murder, the minimal requirement of the Torah. Life in his kingdom demands something beyond the regulations handed down at Mount Sinai – (Matthew 5:27-32).
Jesus turned the law of “eye for an eye” into the command to “turn the other cheek.” He repudiated the popular interpretation of the time that added the clause “and hate your enemy” to the love commandment. Since Leviticus explicitly commanded love to fellow Israelites but omitted any mention of the Gentiles, so the logic went, hatred of enemies was permissible – (Leviticus 19:18).
But he rejected this wrongheaded interpretation. Since the commandment prohibited any act of vengeance, plainly, the Law does not allow for the hatred of anyone, whether Jew or Gentile. A man takes vengeance against someone who acts against his interests, but the disciple of Jesus is called to love his enemy and to pray for anyone who abuses him.
Does God not send the rain on the just and the unjust? This statement is derived from the final clause of Leviticus 19:18. After commanding Israel not to take vengeance, God stressed His identity, “I am Yahweh.” Giving mercy to the deserving and the undeserving is fundamental to the nature of the One who revealed Himself as “Yahweh,” the one “who is” and who keeps His covenant promises.
If the disciple limits his love to friends and family, how is he any different than the tax collector or Gentile, let alone the scribes and Pharisees? All of us quite naturally love those who do good to us but loving your mortal enemy is something altogether different and even foreign to our nature.
And love is something more than a feeling or an abstract idea. Instead, it is demonstrated in concrete acts of mercy. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him to drink.” Likewise, John would write decades later, “let us not love in word, but in deeds.”
Moreover, Jesus engaged in the ultimate act of mercy to his enemies when he gave “gave his life a ransom for many,” including for his friends and enemies, for both good and evil men – (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 12:20, 1 John 3:18).
Righteousness is not demonstrated by restraining ourselves from committing sin, and it is not defined by the evil that we do not do. Instead, it is manifested by the good that we do for others, and especially for our enemy. Certainly, we must avoid sin, but that by itself does NOT make us righteous or justify us before God, and it certainly does not make us “perfect as our heavenly Father.”
And Christ’s simple command to love our enemies and do good to those who abuse us, including our persecutors, demonstrates eloquently that in his kingdom there is no place for hatred, violence, or retaliation, period.