Jesus’ Jewish Command to Love

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Jesus' command to "love your enemies" was revolutionary! No one before him dared to raise such a high standard for the life of faith.

Revised:  20-Oct-2013

Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” was revolutionary! No one before him dared to raise such a high standard for the life of faith. Yet, few Christians today realize that Jesus’ ethical charge was a breathtaking culmination of contemporary Jewish thinking. In the difficult days of Roman occupation, the Jewish people found it hard to see evidence of the Old Testament notion that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

Instead, the idea gradually took hold that what appeared at first glance like failure on the part of God to act justly, might in fact be a sign of his unfathomable mercy—extended to the undeserving. Or as we hear in the conclusion of one of Jesus’ parables, “Would you deny my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:15-16). In life it is not always easy to distinguish neatly between the deserving and the undeserving. All are equal and stand as recipients of God’s mercy. As we will see later, the ethical considerations that were drawn from this recognition that “God sends rain upon the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45) set the stage for Jesus’ bold challenge to love your enemy. Yet, not everyone in those difficult days saw the events as signs of God’s mercy.

The view of Jesus and Israel’s Sages differed from the Dead Sea Sect at Qumran. The Qumran sectarians were a persecuted community which had experienced the reality that the righteous in this life do suffer. Yet, their rigid perception of God produced a distinctly different outcome. They believed that God had predetermined the eternal destiny of mankind (1QS 3:15-18). Members of the community were the Sons of Light, chosen for eternal bliss; while those outside of the community were the Sons of Darkness, who had been destined for perdition. This spiritual division was unchangeable, and they hoped that ultimately the wicked would be destroyed.

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Comments 4

  1. Jesus here is also elaborating on a wisdom teaching: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25.21, NIV). This implies a radical disregard for earthly circumstances. This fleshes out the commandment to the church in Smyrna: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” I mean, if you give refreshment to your enemies, they may turn around and destroy you. Or they may be won over by your beneficent actions toward them. But these considerations are not foremost for those who follow God’s commands and hold to the testimony of Jesus. They are faithful, even if death may result.

  2. I struggle with some of the implications of this verse (Mt 5.44 Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you). If we take a few hypothetical examples and see how someone in these circumstances should apply this verse.

    1) A Christian in Iraq whose community has just been threatened by ISIS. Apart from escaping, is he/she to pray for ISIS? And if so, what exactly do they pray for? Their salvation?

    2) A Christian in the West hearing about the atrocities committed by ISIS – is he/she to pray for ISIS (those who persecute you) and again, pray for what? Are we to ‘love’ them? The pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have issued a call for military action against ISIS – how does that fit into this command, and are they actually breaking this command?

    If we take this command to its natural conclusion, there would be no circumstance in which a Christian should take up arms against anyone, no matter how brutal and atrocious their actions; instead we are to pray. That doesn’t sound right to me .

  3. Pingback: “Treasure in Heaven”: Examining an Ancient Idiom for Charity | JerusalemPerspective.com Online

  4. Pingback: Let Him Who Is Without Sin… | JerusalemPerspective.com Online

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R. Steven Notley

R. Steven Notley

R. Steven Notley is professor of Biblical Studies at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993). He studied in Jerusalem…
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