43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus began again with a statement that everyone knew: Love your neighbor. It comes from the Old Testament book of law called Leviticus. Leviticus is a book we usually skip during our Bible reading plan. It’s the one has a bunch of rules about how to sacrifice animals, not wearing two kinds of material, and how men should have beards and braided sideburns. It feels primitive until, as we talked about before, you see the progressive revelation taking place. This book is about God taking a people and teaching them a new way to live.
We are still struggling with grace, mercy, and love that Jesus taught. This book was a rest stop on the way of getting to Jesus filled with revolutionary ideas along the way.
So Jesus points back to this book because people still tried to apply these laws and understand what to do with them. Loving your neighbor, as we will see, was a considerable debate. But let’s read this whole section so we can see what Jesus was talking about in the sermon on the mount.
11 “‘Do not steal. “‘Do not lie. “‘Do not deceive one another. 12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. 13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. 4 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. 15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. 17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Now, wait. Let’s go back to what Jesus said.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
Commentators and experts say this is what Jesus quoted but the Leviticus passage only said,
…love your neighbor as yourself…
So, where’s the disconnect? What’s Jesus talking about here? I read nothing in Leviticus 19 that said anything about hating my enemies. So, what gives?
Jesus is pointing to something we still do today. The people, and even worse, the teachers in Jesus’s day, took a passage of scripture and misinterpreted it so they could justify their hatred of others instead of the radical love they were called to by God.
Love your neighbor as yourself became love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Rather than seeing the radically inclusive love of God, the people ran to the temptation of sinful exclusion.
And let’s not act like this doesn’t happen today. How many passages are do we misinterpret? How many passages meant to reveal struggles within our own lives have we used as weapons on others? How many times have we found creative ways to justify how we treat our perceived enemies?
We do this all the time as individuals, churches, and as a nation.
And it’s not the way of Jesus.
Matthew 5:44 shows the way of Jesus:
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Jesus told a parable, a story, to make this even more explicit.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
And we all love the Good Samaritan. We all want to be the Samaritan-caring for others and making a difference. But did you notice the end? The expert in the law said the neighbor was the man who had mercy. Why didn’t he simply say, “the Samaritan?” And now we’re getting to the point of the story.
Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They worshipped differently, followed different laws and leaders, and shared a border you didn’t cross because of the animosity between the two groups.
We know Jesus said we should be like the Samaritan. What we miss is that the expert of law, you know the one who claimed to know and understand the Bible, hated Samaritans so much he couldn’t even say their name. He hated that Jesus made a Samaritan the good guy in this story.
Whose name do you hate to say? Who is the last person you would want to see Jesus make the good guy? Who do you struggle to show love and mercy? Who do you struggle to pray for? What hatred and discrimination have you justified? Who have you excluded from the Kingdom of God because you thought you knew better than God? That’s who you need to learn to love.
That’s the love Jesus was talking about, and it is what we need in our world now more than ever before: a radical love where our selfish hate goes to die so our love for others can live.