The Sermon on the Mount—“Be Perfect”: Love Your Enemies
Those present for the Sermon on the Mount were Jews who had “heard” God’s command: “You must not take vengeance nor have a grudge against the sons of your people; and you must love your fellow as yourself.”—Lev. 19:18.
However, the religious leaders of Israel stressed the fact that “the sons of your people” and “your fellow” referred only to Jews. They also emphasized that other commands of God’s law required the Israelites to remain separate from other peoples. (Deut. 7:1-4) Though this referred to Israel’s separateness as a nation from other national groups, eventually the viewpoint arose that all non-Jews were ‘enemies,’ to be hated as individuals. An example of this attitude can be seen from the following statement in The Mishnah:
“Cattle may not be left in the inns of the gentiles since they are suspected of bestiality; nor may a woman remain alone with them since they are suspected of lewdness; nor may a man remain alone with them since they are suspected of shedding blood. The daughter of an Israelite may not assist a gentile woman in childbirth since she would be assisting to bring to birth a child for idolatry, but a gentile woman may assist the daughter of an Israelite. The daughter of an Israelite may not suckle the child of a gentile woman, but a gentile woman may suckle the child of the daughter of an Israelite in this one’s domain.”—Tractate Abodah Zarah (“Idolatry”) 2:1.
“However, I say to you,” declared Jesus in refreshing contrast, “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” (Matt. 5:44) Here we see further evidence that the Son of God came, “not to destroy, but to fulfill” the written Law of God, for that Law commanded considerate, kindly treatment of foreigners.—Matt. 5:17; Ex. 22:21; 23:4, 5; Lev. 19:33, 34; Deut. 10:19.
But Jesus did not intend to limit this principle to Gentile enemies of Israel. He desired his followers to act lovingly toward all persons who would show hostility to them. Writing especially for non-Jews, Luke records Jesus’ words in this way: “But I say to you who are listening, Continue to love your enemies, to do good to those hating you, to bless those cursing you, to pray for those who are insulting you.”—Luke 6:27, 28.
According to Jesus, those who were “listening,” that is, really taking his sayings to heart, must meet a threefold aspect of hatred with a corresponding threefold expression of love: (1) “To do good to those hating” them, responding to an enemy’s feelings of animosity with kindly deeds. (2) If hatred erupts into verbal abuse, “to bless those cursing” them. Rather than returning curse for curse, followers of Jesus should speak kindly and considerately to their opposers. (3) If enmity goes beyond verbal abuse to actual “persecuting” of Christ’s disciples through physical violence or other “insulting” mistreatment, they should “pray for” the persecutors, lovingly petitioning God that their opposers have a change of heart and come into God’s favor.—Compare Romans 12:14-21; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Peter 3:8, 9.
Jesus then gave a powerful reason for showing love to one’s enemies: “That you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens.” (Matt. 5:45a) For the benefit of his Gentile readers, Luke replaces the phrase, “your Father who is in the heavens,” with “the Most High.”—Luke 6:35a.
Persons who heed Jesus’ advice become “sons” of God in the sense that they imitate him by reflecting his impartial benevolence toward friend and foe alike. (Compare Matthew 5:9; Ephesians 4:31–5:2; 1 John 3:9-12.) God sets a perfect example in that “he makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45b); “he is kind toward the unthankful and wicked.”—Luke 6:35b.
To stress how important it would be for his hearers to ‘continue to love their enemies,’ Jesus added: “For if you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Are not also the tax collectors doing the same thing? And if you greet your brothers only, what extraordinary thing are you doing? Are not also the people of the nations doing the same thing?”—Matt. 5:46, 47.
Persons who desire to imitate God must not limit their expressions of love to individuals who reciprocate. This would merit no special “reward” or favor with God. Even “tax collectors” were accustomed to display love to those loving them, although the Jews considered these as among the most despised of people.—Luke 5:30; 7:34.
The common greeting among Israelites included the word shalom (“peace”), which implied a wish for the health, welfare and prosperity of the person greeted. Restricting such a greeting to persons viewed as “brothers” would be no “extraordinary thing,” for something similar could be observed among “people of the nations,” whom the Jews viewed as godless, unclean and to be avoided.
Luke’s Gospel, written with non-Jews in mind, replaces the expressions “tax collectors” and “people of the nations” (which in this context would be meaningful only to Jews) with the more general term “sinners.” We read: “And if you love those loving you, of what credit is it to you? For even the sinners love those loving them. And if you do good to those doing good to you, really of what credit is it to you? Even the sinners do the same. Also, if you lend without interest to those from whom you hope to receive, of what credit is it to you? Even sinners lend without interest to sinners that they may get back as much.”—Luke 6:32-34.
Jesus concluded this portion of the Sermon on the Mount with the statement: “You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”—Matt. 5:48.
This is not a command for disciples of Jesus to become physically and morally flawless, for at present that is impossible due to inherited sin. (Rom. 3:23; 5:12) Rather, these words encourage people to imitate the “heavenly Father,” Jehovah, by perfecting their love, bringing it to full measure and making it complete by including their enemies in its embrace. In line with this, Luke’s parallel account reads: “Continue becoming merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”—Luke 6:36.