Reflection on Matthew 5.43-48 (Lent)

Jesus said: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Most people are familiar with Jesus’ response to the lawyer who asked: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Most people will know that Jesus’ response begins by highlighting our responsibility to love God above and before all else in this world. They may also know that Jesus went on to say: And a second is like it; “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It is very likely that that majority of people will also be able to quote words from the book of Leviticus: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. They will not know the context of the words from the Old Testament, but they will see it as a justification for alienation and revenge, that which causes so much harm in our troubled and divided world.

Today we read a very different message as Jesus says: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Rather than allowing us to distil a social contract that suits our own agenda for life, Jesus is very specifically challenging us to reconsider how we live the Christian life in this world. Rather than seeking out justifications for feelings of hatred and revenge, Jesus is instructing us to love, to love everyone, including our enemies and those who persecute us.

The word ‘enemy’ brings to mind great and intense conflict, possibly conflict on a national scale. But our enemies are much closer than that, and they are often inventions of our own imaginations. Because someone holds a different view to us on some matter or the other, we view them as our opponents, our enemies. Because someone’s way of life and personal values differ from our own, we identify them as ‘enemies’, even if that is not the first word we might use. Because someone chooses to worship God in a way that is not comfortable for us, we label them, and treat them, as enemies.

As those self-defined enemies go about their daily lives, and as others support their seemingly ‘hostile’ ways, we begin to see ourselves as being persecuted. Then, as attitudes and differences become more widely known, those we have identified as our enemies live up to our negative aspirations, they grow into the enemy who must be defeated and upon whom revenge must be exacted.

The challenge of Jesus’ words today revolve around our calling to be Christ-like in our generosity and our love towards others, no matter who or what they might be. Rather than aligning ourselves with some faction or the other, we are being called to open our arms, as Christ opened his arms on the cross, and radiate love. We are being called to open our arms and let our defences drop, no matter how vulnerable that makes us feel, just as Christ did for us on Calvary.

Let us pray that we might love our enemies, both real and imagined, and let us pray for those who persecute us, whether the persecution be real or imagined. Let us pray that we might be as generous and loving as Jesus is to us.