Jesus gives a very clear example of what it means to be the light of the world in Matthew chapter 5. This example is seen in Mt. 5:43-48 which states,
“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 be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
This passage is a clear indication of how disciples of Christ are supposed to treat those who persecute them. However, some background on this passage is in order. One of the titles that Matthew gives Jesus is that of the New Moses.
Old Testament Background
When one reads the accounts of Moses in the Pentateuch and the life of Christ there are similarities that arise. Moses wandered through the desert for forty years while Jesus went into the desert for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Moses climbed up Mt. Sinai and gave the Ten commandments.
Jesus climbed up the mountain and delivered the ten beatitudes. This was no accident as Moses was the supreme law giver in the Old Testament. That law would be fulfilled perfectly by the Messiah Jesus Christ.
In Deuteronomy 19:21 Moses writes, “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”. However, Jesus is telling us to love our enemies. On the surface this seems like a contradiction, but that is not the case.
The verse in Deuteronomy is meant to convey the necessity for the punishment to fit the crime. In other words, this was not meant as a way to exact personal vengeance but was a guideline for authorities to sentence offenders.
Why mention “eye for an eye” when it isn’t even mention in Mt. 5:43-48? It is mentioned because passages such as Deuteronomy 19:21 evolved through tradition as permission to hate one’s enemy, and that is not was intended.
We Are Held To A Higher Standard
Here Christ is calling his disciples to a much higher standard of conduct over their Jewish counterparts. In layman’s terms, Jesus was setting the record straight.
Indeed, Moses was the supreme law giver, but Jesus is greater than Moses and came to fulfill the law. Jesus would ultimately show us how do this by asking forgiveness for his executioners, but here he elaborates on how to live it.
He wants his disciples to walk the talk. Those who we think are our enemies are those who need the most love. They need the light, love, and mercy that only Christ can give.
The term used by Christ in this passage is agape. It is a term of benevolence, affection, or love, and is used in two basic ways. One way is denoting love between people, and another way refers to the love of God.
Christ is telling his followers to not follow the status quo. For too long people were following the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it. As a result, a law that was meant for just punishment became a guise for personal vengeance.
This is clearly not what God intended and Jesus gets to the point. If his disciples treat others the way that they are treated, then they are no different than non-believers. To tell one’s followers to love their enemies was the very epitome of being countercultural.
Jesus Was Countercultural
He was also countercultural in regard to who he is referring to as a neighbor in Mt. 5:43. This not something unique to Matthew’s Gospel and can be seen in the other synoptic Gospels as well. The most famous one being the story of the good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10.
Just as correct sentencing of a criminal morphed over time so did the meaning of neighbor. During the time of Christ, the Israelites thought of their neighbor as another Israelite. Jesus, like he did in the story of the good Samaritan, tells his listeners that everyone is their neighbor.
This was another countercultural ideal that would set apart his followers because it shows that his message is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. This even meant the much-hated occupying Roman Empire.
How Will You React?
To be clear, this does not mean that to be a disciple of Christ is to be a passivist. If needed self-defense is something one must do, but these verses speak in regard to morality.
Jesus calls his disciples to not hate and love in a way that shows the love of Christ to all mankind. This shows that with Christ they can look past how their sinful tendencies have them look at others and points them in a whole other direction.
This is seen clearly in Mt. 5:48 where Jesus says that they must be perfect just as the Father is. Jesus calls his disciples to higher standard than that found in the Old Covenant. The Greek word for perfect used is teleios means to be complete or everything that God intends.
Thus, Jesus summarizes what it means to truly love your neighbor as a disciple. This passage sets a great stage for what would occur in chapter nine of Matthew’s Gospel. How are we treating those whom we may not get along with?