Jesus and Torah: Love Your Enemies

Jesus and Torah: Love Your Enemies

 Jesus and Torah: Love Your Enemies.

“You have heard it 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 children 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 have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Mathew 5:43-47).

The phrase Jesus seemed to be quoting, “hate your enemy,” is not found in the Torah. So one wonders who Jesus was quoting. On the contrary, in fact, in Exodus 23:4-5, we find these words, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.” And in Proverbs 25:21-22 we see these words about enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For so will you heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Coals of fire probably referred to the blood rising to the top of the enemy’s head in shame and embarrassment, deeds of kindness awakening the conscience of the enemy. St. Paul liked this proverb so much he quoted it in his letter to the Romans in 12:20. So the ethos in the Torah is that believers were expected to help and generally be kind to enemies.

Scholars say a number of things regarding Jesus’ reference to hating one’s enemies. He didn’t hear it in the Torah, but He did hear it all the time in religious circles during His day. There were three main religious groups at the time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. They all had influence in religious discussions and daily ethics. The Essenes’ ethic was to hate their enemies, who were basically anyone outside their tight little community. A fragment of the Dead Sea scrolls laid out their Manual of Discipline, and hating one’s enemies was definitely in that Manual. So Jesus may have been referring to the Essenes in this verse. The Pharisees taught that they should love only those who loved them in return. And the Pharisees interpreted Psalm 139:21-22 with a very personal application: “Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate you? And do I not loath those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” The Pharisees took those verses to heart and adopted them into their ethic regarding Gentiles, Samaritans, the especially unclean, and basically anyone who hurt their religious pride in some way. Also, there was some rabbinic teaching that added an unwritten inference to Leviticus 19:17-18, which instructs believers to love their neighbors. Some rabbinic authorities believed that “hate your enemy” was just a logical conclusion to draw from “love your neighbor.”

So Jesus knew the religious authorities were on the wrong track, and he wanted to move things forward to the ethic of the New Covenant. The general populace heard a lot of unofficial chatter about hating one’s enemy, and Jesus laid down His new interpretation that reflected the truth about how to treat one’s enemy. One wasn’t merely obligated to act in their best interest, as the Torah says. Jesus said to take it one big step further… They were to actually love their enemies. Jesus’s words in the parallel account in Luke puts it this way: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.” (Luke 6:27-30). Jesus wanted them to treat an enemy in the way they would want others to treat them. (v. 31).

Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” In this context, a good question would be, ‘Who is my enemy?” Scripture seems to say that an enemy is anyone who hates you. An enemy is anyone who curses you, mistreats you, is unfair to you, harasses you, who uses you for his gain. Taken this way, in a world of sin, we all have ample opportunities to practice and live into this ideal of Christ. This particular command of Jesus is maybe the most difficult command to put into practice. How do we let our enemy bring out the best in us, and not the worst? Even if we don’t feel like it, in fact especially when we don’t feel like it, love of enemy is an act of will, and intentional decision to go against our human instinct and respond with kindness to those who hate us, to actually go out of our way to minister to this personal enemy. If having a difficult time knowing where to start, ask yourself, what would I do if I actually loved this enemy? Then do that. That’s a good place to start, after asking for the Holy Spirit to equip us with what is needed to follow Jesus into this special kind of love.