“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20).
In the very next verse he begins a series of examples of what he meant by saying that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He begins each of these critiques of the Pharisees interpretation of certain scriptures with “You have heard that it was said to those of old” or similar words. Then he would give either a quote from the Old Testament or the accepted religious interpretation of the day… “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” etc. He did not elaborate on these statements but just launches into what God’s real intent was in giving these laws.
It is obvious from what Jesus said here that the way these scriptures were used was not the way God meant for them to be understood. The teachers of his day would quote “You shall not murder” and say that as long as you did not actually kill someone, pretty much anything else you might do to him was OK with God. You could hate him, belittle him, make fun of him and treat him spitefully – just as long as you didn’t kill him – you wouldn’t have violated God’s law.
People have a way of trimming the law down to fit themselves rather than shaping themselves up to meet the demands of the law. God’s law is hard to keep if it is kept as God intended men to keep it. So people will try to find what they suppose is the barest minimum that meets the requirements of keeping the law and that is as far as they will go in their effort to keep the law. But that is not playing by God’s rules. It is like children changing the rules of a game when the rules don’t suit them.
In the last of these examples in Matthew 5 Jesus shows how men had totally altered and perverted the divine intention by adding their limiting clause. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (Matthew 5:43). That last part (and hate your enemy) is a totally human addition. It completely subverts God’s intention in giving that law about loving one’s enemies.
“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 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.” (Matthew 5:43-48).
When Jesus says, “But I say to you,” he is not giving a new law. He is not adding to the law to make it harder so that his disciples would be more righteous than the Pharisees. He was telling them what God’s intention had been all along. It is by doing what God really intends for us that our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees.
Love your enemies? Pray for them? Yes! Why? Why should we love our enemies? They never did anything for us so why should we care about them? I had a brother one time tell me that he just didn’t understand this business about loving one’s enemies. He said, “I’d just as soon hit them up side the head!” This is exactly the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees. This is the very attitude Jesus is teaching against.
Jesus said the reason we should love our enemies is “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” This statement speaks volumes. It tells us what God’s intention was in giving the law. The law God gave through Moses was a revelation of himself. In giving that law he was calling men to be like him. The law was not an end in itself; it was a means to an end. The end was that stated by Jesus in verse 48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The end of the law is no less than perfection – completeness – the completeness of our humanity in the image of himself.
How does loving our enemies work? Remember, Jesus is not telling us to like our enemies. He is not telling us to ignore their wrongs toward us. He is not telling us to do something God would not do toward his enemies. If God is the standard of conduct toward his enemies, what does that mean for us?
Jesus here tells us that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God is completely fair and equitable toward all. He does not play favorites – even toward the righteous. The evil enjoy his sunshine just as much as the righteous. The rain he sends falls just as freely on the unjust as upon the just. This is how we are to deal with our enemies. We are not to refuse to do good to them because they don’t like us or because they hold something against us. We are not to refuse to acknowledge their presence or their need when we can do something about it.
Paul taught Christians to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14). Just a few verses later he adds that we should “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:17). Unlike the brother who wanted to hit his enemies “up side the head,” Paul tells us to “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). He then gives the appropriate positive approach…
“To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:20-21).
This is an example of Jesus’ topsy-turvy, paradoxical approach to dealing with evil in this world. We are to overcome evil with good. We are to do good to those who do evil to us. We are to bless those who curse us. We are to pray for those who revile us.
Will this end the enmity of our enemies? No, not always. What it will do is make us more like the heavenly Father. It will make us more like the Savior whose prayer on the cross was for God to forgive those who had crucified him “for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
“But,” someone says, “that is hard. Does God really expect us to actually do all that?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” Jesus said in our text that if we do not do this we are no different from anyone else.
“For if you love 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?” (Matthew 5:46-47).
To do any less than Jesus demands is to be no better than non-Christians. If we love only those who love us we are only repaying an obligation. But when we show love for even our enemies it shows what kind of person we really are. It shows that we know what God is like and that we desire to be like him. It shows that we are like Jesus. It shows that we are children of the heavenly Father. It also shows that we are “perfect” – mature, complete – that God has reached his goal in us in making us like him.
The word (perfect) comes from telos, end, goal, limit. Here it is the goal set before us, the absolute standard of our Heavenly Father. (Robertson’s Word Pictures, eSword).
How are you doing helping God reach his goal in making you like him? Test yourself. Do you love your enemies?