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.