Hating Your Enemies? – Matthew 5:43-48


The Law touches on every area of life. There are civic rules as well as commands governing worship and sacrifice, The Law included moral and ethical commands to guide the people as with economics, immigration, social and personal relationships.

By the time of Jesus, the Law had been interpreted and re-applied to new situations. The Law commanded the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath by not working on the seventh day of the week. But what did the Law mean by work? If one cannot light a lamp on the Sabbath, what happens if you accidentally snuff your lamp in the evening of the Sabbath?  Many of these definitions of “work” intended to clarify what as permitted (and what was not) on the Sabbath so that the people could keep the Sabbath properly. There was a good intention behind the rules, to honor God and keep his commandments.

When Jesus is asked about the “greatest commandment” in Matthew 22:34-40 he replied “love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus, the whole of the Law and Prophets hung on these two commandments. Certainly he did not encourage Sabbath-breaking, but if a person was unloving to their neighbor while trying to honor God, then they have broken one of the foundational commandments. Likewise, if someone acting in an offensive way toward God while being loving toward their neighbor, they have broken the greatest of the commandments. Even so, it may be a shock to his disciples to hear, “love your enemies.”

The command to love one’s neighbor is one of the two “greatest commandments.” Along with the Shema, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 as the key text in the Torah commanding love of one’s neighbors. Jesus does not reverse the command, but deepens it to define neighbor to include even one’s enemies.

Defining who is a neighbor (and who was not) was a common discussion in Second Temple Judaism. A person might love their neighbor, but is a Roman soldier was not a “neighbor” then it was possible to hate them. Certainly a Roman oppressor like Pilate could be the subject of hatred? Defining boundaries and deciding “who is in, who is out” was just as popular in Jesus’s days as it is today.

This is the point of the Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus agrees with many Jewish teachers of the time by saying “love your neighbor” is one of the two great commandments, but someone asks him to clarify who counts as a neighbor. By using a Samaritan as the example of someone who was a “good neighbor” Jesus intentionally shocks his audience.

This love of one’s enemy extends even to the Gentiles. For Second Temple period the ultimate ‘enemy” was a Roman. For Jesus to tell a crowd of Galileans to love even a Roman gentile would have been a shocking reversal of cultural expectations. Imagine the most right-wing radical southern Christian showing kindness and love toward Bill and Hillary Clinton? Imagine the most left-wing liberal New York Democrat showing love and compassion toward Donald Trump? (Yes, I am embracing the stereotype to make a point!)

Jesus implies “hate your enemy” is a corollary to “love your neighbor.” But where is the command to “hate your enemy” found? There is little evidence any Jewish writer or teacher actually expressed the idea “hate your enemies” at the time of Jesus and hatred of an enemy is not typical of Judaism either in the first century or today.

Scot McKnight cites 1QS 1:9-11 as evidence the Qumran community expressed hatred toward the Romans. This text commands love for the Children of Light and hatred for the Children of Darkness (McKnight, Sermon, 142) It may not be necessary to find a text which states “hate your enemies” since hatred for people one does not like is common in every culture, especially the world of the first century. It is easy to find expressions of hatred in ancient literature, whether that is a Roman hating a Jew, or a Jew hating a Roman.

It is possible this “hatred of an enemy” is drawn from Psalm 139:21-22. The Psalmist expresses hatred for those who hate the Lord: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Psalm 140:10 prays a curse on an enemy: “Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!” The Psalmist would not consider himself in breach of the command to love one’s neighbor, but he does pray for the enemy to suffering greatly. Who are these enemies? The Babylonians? The Persians?  The Greeks?  The Romans? The Democrats? The Republicans?

Do contemporary Christians draw similar boundaries? I see a great deal of hatred expressed by Christians on social media, especially towards public personalities. That might be an American free speech right, but Jesus is calling his disciples to set those rights aside and love even your enemy! We can be proud about “loving our neighbors” by donating money to ministries that feed the poor “over there” while doing nothing for the poor in our own community. We think we are loving our neighbor by praying for nebulous, unnamed needy people yet poor hatred on them when the show up on our borders in desperate need.