Commentary Matthew 5: 43-48

Background to Today’s Text

The Sermon on the Mount is THE foundational instruction manual for Jesus’ followers.  He lays out the strategy they will use in fighting the spiritual darkness of the world: they will broadcast their own inner happiness and fire to the people around them.  

He tells them that even though he is ushering in a new age, that everything will be built on the old stories and laws (from the Old Testament.)  In fact, the new era will be the fruit of those ancient dreams. 

He then informs them that the worst enemies they will encounter in the revolution ahead will be those enemies found inside their own personalities!  And so he gives a short primer in anger, lust, and careless talk.  And he has just finished talking to them about the awkwardness that arises when there is a power differential between persons:  and our tendency to either be humiliated or trigger humiliation in someone else.  The festering phenomenon of humiliation not only wreaks havoc in the world but can squelch our efforts to bring change.  Jesus gets very specific in what he wants us to do when we are humiliated. 

His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are clearly counter-intuitive and difficult.  They demand that we discipline (not suppress) our feelings.  Emotions and feelings MUST be governed by disciplined thinking. 

Now he takes up the subject of enemies:  how we are to act regarding them.  His teaching here is arguably the most radical of anything he says.   

Fluid Translation Matthew 5: 43-48

43  The wisdom of old declared, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  44  But I’m going to add this:  Love your enemies and pray for those who mess with you.  45  Then you’ll resemble your spiritual and eternal father.  Consider how he operates:  making his sun rise on good and bad alike…and his rains to fall indiscriminately, both on those who do good as well as those who are up to no good.   46  If you confine your loving to those who love you, why should God pat you on the back for that?  Even scoundrels (like tax contractors) manage that!  47  If you treat only your intimates with respect and affection, what’s the big deal?  You’re no different than everyone else in the world.  48  You must aim for that ultimate, fully matured human goodness, just as your spiritual and eternal father is the ultimate goodness. 

The Message Then

Jesus’ first listeners were probably shocked at what they had just heard him say.  Life (it seemed) gave them no shortage of enemies: they had to put up with difficult family members, ornery neighbors, arrogant government officials, hypocritical religious leaders, intimidating soldiers, conniving landowners, heartless bureaucrats, dishonest merchants, suspicious foreigners… 

Yet all the while, amidst enemies aplenty, there seemed never enough resources.  There was never enough energy, patience, and love to go around for our side.  So why waste one’s affections and respect on “the other side?”

And yet Jesus was now telling them that they should love their enemies.  No teacher had ever taught this before.  Jesus was taking his strategy into unchartered waters.  In previous teachings, he had drawn from the noblest strains of Old Testament ideals.  But now he was proposing something entirely new:  love your enemies!  Such a concept was a major paradigm shift.  And the listeners would need to wrestle a long time before beginning to understand all that would be involved.

Furthermore, the first listener’s would have interpreted Jesus’ injunction to “be perfect” in a way very different from how the modern reader would understand.  To start with, “perfection” is a poor translation of the Greek word.  A better (and wordier) rendering would be, “your goal must be ultimate, your striving must be continual, your dedication must be total, your aim must be spot on, and your mission must be fully accomplished.  In other words, they would have understood his words as a call to total dedication, leaving nothing out:  moment after moment, day after day, year after year…until they achieved nothing less than total victory in God’s revolution to bring light to darkness.

History and Culture Notes

Love and hate

Jesus refers to an old saying:  love your neighbor, hate your enemy.  The words “love” and “hate” had some additional definitions in his culture. 

To love someone was to be attached to them:  emotionally, economically, socially, politically.  It had less to do with affection and more to do with dependency and interaffiliation.  “To love” someone was to bestow your favors on that person, regardless of whatever inner feelings you may have about them.  You loved (bestowed favors) because you were linked with them through blood, religion, or nationality.  Love was synonymous with attachment.  Love by such definition may not always be affectionate, good, or healthy.   

Whenever love is predominately an expression of affiliation rather than affection, psychological introspection is inhibited.  It is best not to know oneself:  ignorance is bliss.  The cultural expressions of love and hate in Jesus’ day interfered with his teachings that we must tend to our inner selves:  the heart, the mind, and the eye. 

If the definition of “love” had a different twist back then, so did their understanding of “hate.”  To hate meant to be indifferent.  To hate was to deny your resources and favors.  “Hate” was an absence of action, not necessarily a hostile feeling.  One hated by being dis-attached, apathetic, NOT responsible for the other’s suffering.  “Hate” was simply the way you walked away from someone when you could perceive usefulness for yourself or your affiliates.  Hate could, of course, involve hostility—but not always.

Enemies

Enemies are well known in the Bible.  An enemy is someone who evokes our anxieties, aversions, and arrays of anger.  The Psalmist leads us in litanies of complaint about our enemies. We are given voice to pray for our deliverance from them.  Scripture eggs us on:  to imagine their fall, ruination, and annihilation. 

Even though the ancients seldom yielded to psychological introspection, they did engage in psychological projection.  Inner guilt and shame were readily projected onto people who were alien or unfamiliar.  Whole groups were stereotyped and kept segregated, thus becoming targets for pent up anger, frustration, and fear.  The enemy was always “out there,” not within.  The hatred of the enemy was considered essential for survival.  To not hate the enemy was thought to be naïve.  Like hairy spiders, the only good enemy was a dead enemy.  Enemies must be controlled, dominated, exterminated.

Perfection

Our definition of “perfection” would have been gibberish to someone in ancient Palestine.  We think of perfection in terms of the Greek notion of “flawlessness.”  Our understandings of “perfection” have been filtered through the Age of the Enlightenment.  We think of perfection in terms of mathematics and engineering.  Our education system convinces us that “perfection” tolerates “no wrong answers.”  Our modern legal system, political culture, and journalistic practices all promote a notion of perfection defined as, “never breaking any rules, ever!”  This notion has its origin in Greek art and drama:  where perfection is desired and a single flaw can destroy the world.

But Jesus and his listeners had a Semitic mindset, not Greek.  (Even though Koine Greek was the language of the New Testament, Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language, akin to Hebrew.)  The Greek word “telios” (used in verse 48) is a perfectly good word to convey the Semitic concept of what is ultimate.  It need not be translated, “perfect.”  It would more appropriately make us think of a life of full maturity and fruitfulness, living “God-ward,” instead of “self-ward.” 

It is a pity that English translations of the Bible insist on using the phrase, “You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.  While Greeks and mechanics may yearn for a mistake-less world, poets and artists (and Semites) yearn for a world of rather sloppy goodness and beauty.  Jesus gives his followers the later goal. He was inviting them (and us) to a revolution:  a bloody, dark, difficult revolution.  To live according to the Greek notion of perfection and flawlessness would be useless and silly in such a context.  What is needed instead is full accomplishment, total sacrifice, the engagement of every part of one’s personality, strength, and spirit in the struggle.  Perfection is in the vigor of the process, not the flawlessness of the result.

Other Relevant Scriptures

Leviticus 19:18

The seeds of Jesus’ teachings seem to come from this passage:  we are not to take vengeance against a neighbor.  Our first task is to love our neighbors.  This passage, of course, tempts us to define the term “neighbor” in the most self-serving of terms.

Exodus 23:4

If an enemy’s ox or donkey goes astray, we are to bring it back.  This opens the door to acting humanely toward our enemy (and his/her animals.)  Love of enemy is not explicit in the Old Testament.  But we do have this verse.  And we have other scriptures indicating that God will sometimes be merciful to us when we become his enemies.

Romans 12: 14-21

Paul expands on Jesus’ teaching.  He calls Christians to bless those who persecute them.  He also says that we are to return evil with good.  He calls for us to live in peace with everyone, act nobly toward all, and resist vengeance. 

Deuteronomy 18:13

You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God.”  This verse is the likely inspiration (and interpretation) of Jesus’ command to be “perfect.”  Jesus likewise seems to be inspired by Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Fun with Greek

In  verse 43, ἐχθρόν (exthron) refers to people who offend us:  odious, enemies, adversaries, hostile, alien, making us wary.

In verse 44, διωκόντων (diokonton) (sometimes translated, ‘persecutes’) is one who eagerly pursues, with either like or dislike.  On one hand, it can refer to someone who is hostile, aggressive, aiming to ‘get’ you, destroy you, bring you down.  On the other hand, it could be someone trying to get something out of you, harassing you, using you, manipulating you, draining you.  It could refer to anyone from a demanding child to a terrorist.  The definition is incredibly broad.

In verse 45:  γένησθε (genaysthe) means:  to become, to arise, to show yourself. 

In verse 45: ἀδίκους (adikous) refers to a wrong-doer.

In verse 47:  ἀσπάσησθε (aspasaythe) is to salute, kiss in greeting, pay respects, embrace, welcome, treat with affection

In verse 47:  περισσὸν (perisson) means:  over and above, extra-ordinary, in full abundance, excess, pre-eminent, advantage, exceptional.

In verse 48:  τέλειός (teleios) is very complex in its definition.  It has a long list of possible translations into English:  brought to completion, fully accomplished, fully realized, consummated, end attained, full performance, continually, ultimate destiny, full grown and ripe, without shortcoming.  In other words, you are now playing in the “major leagues” and your performance must be at the highest level.  This is the real battle:  no slacking, indifference, carelessness, disregarding of the rules.  Game on!

Bibliography

Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina)

Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew:  A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith

Frederick J. Murphy, The Religious World of Jesus:  An Introduction to Second Temple Palestinian Judaism

David Noel Freedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible

Zondervan, The Analytical Greek Lexicon

Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew

Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament

Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination

Dialogue Questions

If you are creative and expand your definition of “enemy,” who might be included on your list?

Think of someone who is your enemy and list 5 characteristics you don’t like about that person. How many of those characteristics apply to you?

Just exactly how would you go about loving an enemy? How would it be different (or similar) to the love you give to someone who is the object of your affections?

Are there parts of your own body or personality that feel like an enemy to you? How do you love the enemy that is within you or a part of you?

Recall when you have loved an enemy: What changed about that person in the wake of your love?  What changed about you in the wake of your love?