“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may prove yourselves to be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” – Matthew 5:43-45
So….really take a minute here and digest these verses and the below explanations. This is such a radical and shocking love that Jesus is asking for….it almost seems impossible….but…Jesus.
Instead of only acting in love towards neighbors, Jesus tells His disciples to love their enemies and even to pray for those who persecute them. Though few people live this out, in a meaningful way, the idea is deeply ingrained in western culture. Many modern people have heard this teaching, or variations on it, all our lives. That makes it easy to forget how radical the claim was, especially for those who live with daily threats from dire enemies, as did the first-century Israelites.
On one hand, becoming part of the Roman empire brought benefits. Rome typically did not destroy those they conquered—rather, they allowed relative freedom with a set of conditions. Israel continued to function as Israel in many ways, and they experienced a form of peace under Roman rule. That said, Rome ruled over conquered nations absolutely and severely. Dissent beyond the established limits was savagely punished. Crucifixions were common and brutal. Roman soldiers enjoyed privileges and took liberties with Jewish citizens under their thumb. The Roman tax burden left many people in near poverty. The Jewish people understandably viewed Rome as their enemy.
And yet, a man thought by many to be the Messiah, the Savior who was supposed to free Israel from her enemies, has just commanded His disciples to love and pray for their enemies. Worse, He equated this with the righteous living needed to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is hard enough to grasp today, but at the time the words were first spoken they would have been shocking.
Christ does nothing to take the edge off this command, either. This is not described as emotional love, or affection. This kind of love is meant to be expressed in action. Offering prayers to God for people who are actively hurting you, especially for being associated with Christ, requires looking at the world in a completely different way.
This is an absolutely incredible statement. Shocking is the right word here. For these people that were being completely oppressed by the Roman empire, this kind of love…..was shocking.