A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew. 5:43-48. 2). Active love.

We have already seen how blatant a perversion of the law is the instruction, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’ because of what it omits from the commandment and adds to it. It deliberately narrows both the standard of love (leaving out the crucial words ‘as yourself’, which pitch the standard very high) and its objects (qualifying the category of ‘neighbour’ by specifically excluding enemies from it and adding the command to hate them instead). I call the perversion ‘blatant’ because it is totally lacking in justification, and yet the rabbis would have defended it as a legitimate interpretation. They seized on the immediate context of the inconvenient command to love the neighbour, pointing out that Leviticus 19 is addressed ‘to all the congregation of the people of Israel’. It gives instruction to Israelites on their duties to their own parents, and more widely to their ‘neighbour’ and their ‘brother’. They were not to oppress or rob him, whatever his social status might be. ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart…You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (vv. 17, 18).

It is easy enough for ethical casuists (consciously or unconsciously anxious to ease the burden of this command) to twist it to their own convenience. ‘My neighbour’, they argued, ‘is one of my own people, a fellow Jew, my own kith and kin, who belongs to my race and my religion. The law says nothing about strangers or enemies. So, since the command is to love only my neighbour, it must be taken as a permission, even an injunction, to hate my enemy. For he is not my neighbour that I should love him.’ The reasoning is rational enough to convince those who wanted to be convinced, and to confirm them in their own racial prejudice, But is it a rationalization, and a specious one at that. They evidently ignored the instruction earlier in the same chapter to leave the gleanings of field and vineyard ‘for the poor *and the sojourner*’, who was not a Jew but a resident alien, and the unequivocal statement against racial discrimination at the end of the chapter: ‘the stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself’ (34). Similarly, ‘There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.’ (Ex.12:49).

They also turned a blind eye to other commandments which regulated their conduct towards their enemies. For example, ‘If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up.’ (Ex.23:4, 5). Almost identical instruction was given regarding a brother’s ox or ass (Dt.22:1-4), indicating that love’s requirement was the same whether the beasts belonged to a ‘brother’ or to an ‘enemy’. The rabbis must also have know very well the teaching of the book of Proverbs, which the apostle Paul was later to quote as an illustration of overcoming rather than avenging evil: ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.’ (Pr.25:21; cf. Rom.12:20).

It is quite true that the scribes and Pharisees may have adduced as biblical warrant to hate their enemies either the Israelite wars against the Canaanites or the imprecatory psalms. But if so they misunderstood both these wars and these psalms. The Canaanites are known from modern near eastern studies to have been utterly corrupt in religion and culture. So nauseating were their abominable practices that the land itself is described as having ‘vomited them out’. Indeed if Israel were to follow their customs, she would share their fate. (Cf. Lv.18:25, 28; 20:22). ‘The wars of Israel’, wrote Bonhoeffer, ‘were the only “holy wars” in history, for they were the wars of God against the world of idols. It is not this enmity which Jesus condemns, for then he would have condemned the whole history of God’s dealings with his people. On the contrary, he affirms the old covenant. But from now on there will be no more wars of faith.’

Tomorrow: Tomorrow: Matthew 5:43-48. 2). Active love (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.