23 February 2014

Matthew 5:38-48

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (v. 44)


The well-known passage we read today is found within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), the summary of Jesus' teaching that sketches a 'new kind of righteousness' fit for those within God's kingdom community (Matthew 5:20). The reading divides into two sections, each reflecting the same structure: "You have heard it was said ... But I say to you ..." (vv. 38-39, 43-44). Jesus is here offering a different kind of ethic, one that undercuts popular interpretations of the law (though not the law itself, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5:17-19).

In the first section (verses 38-42), Jesus calls his followers away from violent retaliation, encouraging a willingness to give to those who might even be against you. Some scholars propose that Jesus is addressing the question of how to respond to Roman oppressors in the land, though even if this is the case the principle he enunciates is intended for broader application. Don't seek vengeance, Jesus advises, but treat those who oppress you with kindness.

In the second section (verses 43-48), Jesus calls his followers to love - and pray for - enemies as well as neighbours. In this way, Jesus says, we reflect our divine Father who blesses the "unrighteous" as well as the "righteous" (v. 45). After all, it's not only the crops of the 'good folk' that grow! Enemy-love is, of course, hugely difficult, but is also a clear sign that we are following the way of Jesus.

The passage ends with the call to "Be perfect ... as your heavenly Father is perfect" (v. 48). Jesus' meaning here is widely debated, but 'perfection' here may mean something like 'whole-hearted commitment', a commitment expressed by living in the way Jesus has described throughout his teaching. As the context and other passages make clear, a key dimension of this teaching is love of others.

To Ponder

  • In what ways can we learn to avoid 'retaliation' and instead bless others? 
  • Why is 'loving the enemy' such an important part of following Jesus?
  • What do you think Jesus means by his call to "Be perfect"? 

Bible notes author

Ed Mackenzie

Dr Ed Mackenzie is the Discipleship Development Officer for the Methodist Church and an Associate Lecturer at Cliff College. He lives in Derbyshire with his wife Ali and their two sons.