Focus Scripture – Matthew 5:43-48 (NKJV)
Today’s lectionary text is timely. It comes during a period in contemporary history when the lines between friends and foes are blurred. This lectionary scripture is presented to us during a period in the present time when we are being sent mixed messages about who we should love and who we should hate. People who we once embraced as neighbors are now being vilified, and we are told to no longer look upon them as friends. We are told now that they are our enemies and therefore worthy of our hate. Today’s scripture delivers the opposite message about love.
Chapters 5 through 7 in the Gospel of Matthew comprise what is called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus directs his remarks to his disciples and to the larger crowd that has gathered to hear him speak. In this sermon, Jesus delivers a series of lessons regarding righteous living and true discipleship.
Beginning in verse 43, Jesus begins to teach a new conception of love for one another. He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The terms “neighbor” and “enemy” were classifications the Jewish community employed to determine who to love and who to view with distrust and contempt. The assumption here is that love of neighbors carries reciprocal permission to hate the enemy, although hate of the enemy is not based in scripture.
In verses 44 and 45, we see that Jesus describes a new type of love that goes beyond a by-the-letter interpretation of Mosaic Law. Jesus directs his listeners to not only love their enemies, but also to bless those who curse them, do good to those who hate them, and pray for those who spitefully use them and persecute them. Jesus instructs the listeners of his time on how to behave in the community, a place that embraces righteousness. But, as we well know, embracing righteousness is easier said than done.
All of this raises the question: How do we define righteousness? Simply put, righteousness is defined by right relationships. In Matthew 5:20, Jesus tells those who are listening that “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’ standards are different and more stringent than conventional wisdom or tradition, which served as the touchstones for the Pharisees.
Love As a Standard for Righteousness
In the scripture for today, Jesus uses love as a standard for righteousness. The kind of love Jesus teaches about changes lives and transforms communities. I believe that Howard Thurman understood this kind of love. In Disciplines of the Spirit, Thurman said, “the concern for reconciliation finds expression in the simple human desire to understand others and to be understood by others.” I believe that Thurman would agree that this desire is grounded in love that empowers people to view the issues and problems through lenses of compassion – the same lenses God uses to look at us.
I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this kind of love. He said, “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method, … is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957). Dr. King also said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I submit to you that, indeed, we need to love our neighbors as well as our enemies. But who are our enemies? We may just be looking for enemies in all the wrong places.