Loving Even Your Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Matthew 5:43–5:48
I. Valentine's Day
Since today is Valentine's Day, how could we not talk about love this morning? But the love I'd like us to think about is not one you'll find described in a Hallmark card or on a candy heart. If this kind of love were printed on candy hearts, it wouldn't use familiar phrases like, “Be mine” or “Kiss me”. Instead, we might read (in really, really small letters), “In spite of your hatred”, or “Though you were unkind” or “praying for you”.
You see, the love I'd like us to think about this morning is the love to which Jesus calls in Matthew 5:44, where he declares, “Love your enemies...”. As I mentioned in my last message, this month we are looking together at the 'hard but holy habits' prescribed for us in God's word. Every habit, every discipline, involves some kind of 'sweat equity'. But some are simply harder than others. Some simply aren't as popular as others. Some simply rub us the wrong way, to a greater degree. So it's important that we identify and reclaim these hard but holy habits.
Let's do that this morning by looking more closely at this habit of loving even our enemies. Turn if you haven't already to Matthew 5:43-48.
II. The Passage: “Put to Death...What is Earthly” (5:43-48)
In verses 17-20 of this same chapter, Jesus makes it clear that not only is he fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, but in doing so, he is calling his followers, in light of the kingdom of God, to an exceeding righteousness in light of that fulfilling work. This is not a new righteousness laid on top of the law. This is a righteousness or rightness representing the heart behind the Law; God's own heart. You can hear that very thing in our passage this morning. Look at 5:43-48...
“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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love [or only love-implied] those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Brothers, sister, is the love to which Jesus calls us in this passage a love in which you want to grow? Is it an area in which you are disciplining yourself for that kind of growth? Last month, many Christians, all over the world, committed themselves in the new year to spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and regular prayer. But how many resolved to love even their enemies; to grow in that holy habit? If you are hearing afresh the voice of Jesus this morning and desire to grow in this discipline of love, then you've come to the right place.
Our growth in this area must always be fed by God's word, through the power of God's Spirit. That's why we're going to look more closely at our main passage this morning. But I think another way that we can grow in this regard is by considering the lives of those who exemplify this hard but holy habit of loving even our enemies.
If you didn't know, February is Black History Month, an annual opportunity for our nation to remember the legacy of, to celebrate the achievements of, and to recognize the important role of the African American community in the U.S. I mention Black History Month because some of the best examples of this hard but holy habit come from our African-American brothers and sisters. Painful historical realities like slavery and segregation, in addition to past and present civil rights struggles, as well as everyday experiences with racism have provided more opportunities to love one's enemies than most people would realistically expect or ask for.
So let me share with you a few points that I think help us make sense of the teaching here:
First of all, we need to remember who is calling us to this love. It's incredibly important we remember to whom these word belong. As he's been doing throughout this chapter, when Jesus, in verse 44, declares, “But I say to you...”, he's not simply saying, “Well, I have a different opinion than those rabbis who taught you to hate your enemy.” No. When Christ declares, “But I say to you...”, he, as God in human flesh, is authoritatively correcting us and guiding us in God's will rather than our own interpretations and inclinations.
If you do not recognize and acknowledge Jesus as Lord, then you will not be able to truly love your enemies. This kind of radical love requires a radically new heart, a heart humbled before and hungry for the word of God.
In their book, The Genesis of Liberation, Emerson Powery and Rodney Sadler Jr. describe why so many enslaved Africans embraced the religion of their oppressors. Their simple answer is,
“...they fell in love with the God of Scripture.… In Christ they found salvation from their sins and reconciliation... In these texts they found not just an otherworldly God offering spiritual blessings, but a here-and-now God who cared principally for the oppressed, acting historically and eschatologically to deliver the down trodden from their abusers. They also found Jesus, a suffering Savior whose life and struggles paralleled their own struggles.”
Another author, Juan Williams, writes, “Africans did not simply adopt the religion of the European Colonist; they used the power, principles, and practices of Christianity to blaze a path to freedom and deliverance.”
I also love how an emphasis on Christ is evident from a simple exchange that the abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth had with a group of abolitionist ministers at a meeting in the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When they asked her about her preaching and if she preached from the Bible, she said no, because she couldn't read. "When I preaches," she said, "I has just one text to preach from, an' I always preaches from this one. My text is, 'When I found Jesus.' " Don't you love that? I pray all of us preach daily from that text!
Like those early, African-American brothers and sisters, have you found Jesus? Have you fallen in love with the God of Scripture? Do you hear these words of Jesus about loving even your enemies as the words of “a here-and-now God” who cares deeply for you; as the words of a Savior who himself knows what it means to suffer at the hands of his enemies?
Second, we also need to think about who we are being called to love. Who exactly does Jesus have in mind when he talks about “your enemies” in verse 44? Well the passage itself helps us answer that, doesn't it. It is anyone who “persecute[s]” us (v. 44) . It is anyone who is “evil” and “unjust” towards us (is part of the import of v. 45). It is anyone who demonstrates no love towards us (v. 46). It could be anyone outside of your social or racial or national circle; someone 'different' (v. 47). As I stated in an earlier message on this passage, an enemy could be anyone from whom you might withhold love because he or she disdains you, or dismisses you, or is demanding of you, or is simply different than you.
The powerful orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838. His book, “Narrative of the Life of.. an American Slave” (published in 1845) quickly became a best-seller. In a letter dated October 4, 1860, Douglass wrote to his former master, Hugh Auld, and said, “I love you, but hate slavery”.
Is this kind of love merely an historical footnote. Not at all. On June 17, 2015, a 21-year old white man named Dylan Roof was graciously welcomed into a Wednesday night Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Little did the thirteen participants, all of whom were African-American, know that once the study was finished, their guest would begin viciously shooting those in attendance as he yelled racial slurs. In the end, nine people were dead, including 70-year old Ethel Lance. Two days after the massacre, at a bond hearing for the shooter, the daughter of Ethel Lance stood up and spoke to the young man who had murdered her mom: “I just want everybody to know, I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. God have mercy on your soul.”
If this sister could demonstrate the love of Jesus in this way, love for her enemy, for the man who murdered her mother and eight others, in cold blood, simply because they were black, then shouldn't we be able to love those who have insulted, or ignored, or injured us in some way? To be clear, this hard but holy habit does not simply apply to extreme circumstances like murder or physical abuse. It does apply in those cases, but also in every case in which we would be tempted to withhold love from a person we deemed unworthy of our love, or deserving of our hatred, hostility, or indifference.
In reflecting on this passage, we've thought together this morning about who is calling us to this love, and about who we are being called to love. But third, we also need to consider who we are reflecting with this love. Jesus is clear about this point in verse 45:
[Love your enemies] so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
I believe this verse is the key to understanding everything Jesus is saying here. The call to love your enemy is not ultimately based on seeing the image of God in your enemy, although that is important. It is not ultimately based on the psychological and social burdens of hatred and benefits of forgiveness, although those are important. The call to love your enemy is ultimately based on the abundant grace that characterizes the God we call Father. We love all because God loves all. We love fellow sinners in spite of their sin because God loves sinners in spite of their sin. How and why does he love all? The example Jesus provides his God's loving provision of sunshine and rain. Paul explained this love to his pagan listeners in Acts 14:17... “Yet [God] did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
So God loves all, even those who hate him, so that even those who hate him might recognize his love. If you are truly a child of God, then your first and foremost desire should be to please and reflect your heavenly Father. And that reflection extends beyond loving actions to a loving heart; a heart that desires all, even our enemies, to know God's abundant grace.
Commenting on this passage, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, 'Love your enemies.' Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.” Brothers and sisters, friends, we're not simply talking about a psychologically effective strategy. We're talking about the power of God working through the love of God when lavished on our enemies.
Pastor Anthony Thompson, whose wife, Myra, was killed in the 2015 Charleston shooting also spoke to the killer at that bond hearing. Listen to the heart of God in his words: “I forgive you … And my family forgives you... But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the One who matters the most: Jesus Christ, so that He can change it and change your attitude. And no matter what happens to you, then you’ll be okay. ”
One reporter present at that hearing wrote: “Even atheists had to see divinity in these families built by love. God was there in that courtroom if he has ever been anywhere.” (Michael Daly) In the words of an old Spiritual, sung by slaves who were looking to God as Deliverer: Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?
III. Love as You've Been Loved
Is that your heart this morning? To see God's love reflected and others redeemed? In a world that is constantly drawing lines, regularly defining every disagreement as an 'us vs. them' issue, and then demonizing, demeaning those who disagree, in relationships ruled by 'my rights' and then retaliation, by a conditionality that declares, “Well, she said this to me... he started it... if she would have been nicer... he had it coming”, in a society where it is easier to quietly disengage than lovingly confront, where what is comfortable is more important than what is right, where it's easier to label than love, disciples of Jesus should follow a very different path.
The Lord Jesus is the One who is calling us to this love. All people, even our enemies, are who we are being called to love. God our Father is the One who we are reflecting with this love. As we've heard this morning, over the past few centuries, our African-American brothers and sisters have exemplified this love in extraordinary ways. But it's important to note: loving one's enemy may involve forgiving their sins, but it never means excusing their sins. But it always means speaking the truth in love. To whatever extent they can, God's people should always labor to demonstrate grace and do justice; that's never an either/or.
Brother, sister, where will you go with this hard but holy habit? Maybe God is calling you to write down some names, this morning, names of individuals in your life who you've deliberately or unintentionally pushed outside the circle of your love. Maybe these people are spiteful or hateful. Maybe they are simply neglectful. Maybe you don't like their politics or personality quirks or prideful attitude. Maybe they've pushed you away, and therefore, you feel you have an excuse not to love them.
Whatever the case may be, God is calling you to love this morning. To pray. To forgive. To turn the other cheek. To reach out. To welcome. To speak the truth in love. To reflect the grace of God. And to regularly check your heart when this call of Christ begins to get drowned out. To be clear, setting boundaries is also an expression of this same love. For example, we are certainly called to love and pray for an abusive person. But that doesn't mean excusing or enabling their abusive behavior. Often, setting boundaries in such cases is the most loving things we can do.
So what fuels this kind of revolutionary love? The revolutionary love we've received from God:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly...  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his [resurrected] life. (Romans 5:6, 8, 10)
As those loved with the very best love, even when we were the very worst enemies, how could we not also love our enemies with that very same love? To love as we've been loved. To forgive as we've been forgiven. To give grace as we've received grace. Will you ask God, even now, to give you that heart, and from that heart, to practice and persevere in this hard but holy habit? And if you've never received this revolutionary love, if you've never heard the grace of God whisper in the sunshine and rain, then respond to God this morning, acknowledging your sin and trusting in the Savior. Let's pray for our own hearts in light of His.