Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48
This section of the Sermon on the Mount is a more than fitting text for the final Sunday in Epiphany.
Here, Jesus now needs the disciples to realize what it means to be his disciples in the world.
Discipleship in the world
Jesus now helps his disciples realize that following him will mean meeting up with those with whom you would rather not come in contact, with whom you might consider your enemy. Love your enemies. You will come across those outside of your immediate circles with whom the principles you learned from Jesus you’d rather not share. You will meet others for whom you’d rather the Kingdom of Heaven need not apply.
Preaching this text should preach the fullness of the offense of Jesus’ words, “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have indeed? How is that a mark of discipleship? How is that living into Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:16-20, the Great Commission, should resonate with this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. This is where Matthew is going, this is where Jesus is going, and the disciples need to know this on the front end. The disciples need to know the end goal of Emmanuel—that their discipleship, in part, means bringing “God with us” to the world.
It is a fitting end to this Time after Epiphany in that the season of Lent calls attention to the ways in which the world will reject such a revelation of God. What do we do with such rejection? We continue to be the salt and be the light. That is all we can do. That is what Jesus needs us to do.
Loving your enemies will not sit well with most. It may not even sit well with you. First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects. Determining the identity of our enemy is a line that has been blurred by the global response to terrorism. Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think. Suddenly, the world that Jesus’ envisioned has become rather small. And that is not a good turn of events. Our similarities have become our differences and our differences our similarities. We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, “Do you really know who they are?”
How far we have indeed come from Jesus’ injunction, “Love your enemies.” We might be tempted to interpret such a plea as dated. As something that belongs in Jesus’ time and not ours. As one of those Bible verses that cannot stand the test of time because the distance between Jesus’ world and our world is an expanse not worth our time to traverse.
The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount is that it is easily dismissed as that which could only apply to Jesus’ time and not ours. That Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. That Jesus’ context did not have the complexities of our own realities of global realities.
Until we remember that Jesus lived and did his ministry in a Palestine that was a Roman province. Until we recall that the Gospels were written in a post-temple, post-Jerusalem, post-destruction reality. Then suddenly, Jesus’ world does not seem that far from our own. And we realize that at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew is a message essential for what it means to be church today. Loving your enemy? Really, Jesus? Do you mean that or is that some sort of euphemistic exclamation meant to remind us to be nice to people?
No, love your enemies means just that, and it is an important message going into Lent, when those you hoped would walk alongside you end up abandoning you. Our enemies are not always those we deem our opposites, our detractors, our challengers, or resisters. Our enemies are all too often those whom we do indeed love.