On loving enemies: Matt. 5.38-48

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June 19, 2013 by jmar198013

A note to the reader: this is a section from my master’s thesis, Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount for Social Embodiment (Freed-Hardeman University, 2007). Glen Stassen’s now-classic article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12).” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.2 (2003): 267-306, determined my structural analysis of the text. My exegesis of each section of the Sermon assumes his triadic reading proposal, whereby Jesus quotes or alludes to traditional piety (“You have heard that it was said . . . “); describes a vicious cycle that leads to disobedience (“but I say to you . . . “); and concludes with a transforming initiative that graciously guides us to break the vicious cycle (“Therefore, if . . . “). My reasons for adopting Stassen’s structural proposal over and against others were laid out in an earlier section of the thesis. A brief breakdown of Stassen’s triads may be found here.

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After the introductory formula (“you have heard it said”) so typical for Matt. 5.21-48, Jesus presents the traditional piety in two correlate clauses, one definitely from Torah (“You shall love your neighbor”; cf. Lev. 19.18), and the other definitely not (“and hate your enemy”). What is the latter’s point of origin, if not Torah? Considering the social milieu of Jesus’ day, some have found a referent at Qumran (Davies 245-51; Charlesworth 24).[i] For instance, among the documents of the Qumran community, there is a reference to what God “commanded by means of the hand of Moses and his servants the Prophets; in order to love everything which he selects and to hate everything[ii] that he rejects; in order to keep oneself at a distance from all evil,” and a command to “detest all the sons of darkness, each one in accordance with his blame” (1QS 1.3‑4, 10)[iii]. In the next column, there an eschatological reference to the Levites, who will curse their enemies, saying:

Accursed are you for all your wicked, blameworthy deeds. May he hand you over to dread, into the hands of all those carrying out acts of vengeance. Accursed, without mercy, for the darkness of your deeds, and sentenced to the gloom of everlasting fire. May God not be merciful to you when you entreat him, nor pardon you of your faults. May he lift up the countenance of his anger to avenge himself on you, and may there be no peace for you in the mouth of those who intercede. (1QS 2.4-9)

In contrast to these “sons of light” who claim “to be united in the counsel of God and walk in perfection in his sight” (1QS 1.8-9), in Matt. 5.43-48, Jesus issues a radical imperative, stating that the true sons of God who walk in perfection are those who do not hate, but love, their enemies, and pray for them, rather than calling down curses on them. Hindsight informs us that Jesus’ radical imperative to love enemies was soon tragically vindicated: “He well knew what lay ahead for the people of Israel if hatred was the modus operandi for relating to the Romans. Unfortunately, his advice was not heeded, and the grandeur of ancient Israel went up in smoke in 70 C.E.” (Charlesworth 24).

Jesus’ initial transforming word of grace is two-fold: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Piper is wrong in equating praying for the enemy with loving them, concluding that, “This illustration of Jesus’ command to love stands in direct contradiction to those interpretations which claim that love is only possible in the concrete encounter between men” (143). Rather, Jesus’ presentation of the problem of hating enemies and outsiders in 5.46-47, with its focus on offering salutations, presupposes that there would be direct encounter between the disciples and their enemies. Furthermore, the explanation Jesus gives for loving enemies has to do with imitating the heavenly Father, who shows concrete signs of his love by sending the blessings of sun and rain even on the wicked. Loving enemies and praying for them are no doubt parallel, but this does not in and of itself indicate that they are synonymous. On the other hand, Piper is probably correct regarding the intended substance of the prayer for enemies, which he notes may be drawn from the Sermon on the Mount itself:

5.16: Live so that men glorify your heavenly Father. 6.9: Pray that your Father’s name may be hallowed.
5.23-24: Be reconciled to your brother before offering your gift to God. 6.12: Pray for forgiveness as you have forgiven others.
5.39: Do not retaliate against evil. 6.13: Pray for deliverance from evil.

“The disciple’s prayer that his enemy hallow God’s name and do his will is in effect a prayer that he cease to be an enemy, since . . . the animosity of the enemy for whom we are praying is grounded in his opposition to God’s will” (Piper 143-44). The baffling issue with Piper’s work on this passage is that it seems to indicate that our only loving responsibility towards enemies is to pray for them.

Matt. 5.48 poses an especially difficult interpretive problem. Jesus’ imperative there is perfection. As glosses of τέλειοι such as “mature” or “complete” are still not terribly helpful, it might be helpful to look at it in relation to its Lukan correlate:

Matt. 5.48 Luke 6.36
Ἔσεσθε οὖν

ὑμεῖς

τέλειοι

ὡς

ὁ πατὴρ

ὑμῶν ὁ

οὐράνιος

τέλειός

ἐστιν.

γίνεσθε

 

οἰκτίρμονες

καθὼς

ὁ πατὴρ

ὑμῶν

 

οἰκτίρμων

ἐστίν

 

One of the primary differentiators between these two versions of the saying is that where Matthew has τέλειοι (perfect), Luke has οἰκτίρμονες  (merciful). One could easily deduce that though there is some difference in wording, both versions call for an imitation of the Father’s character in respect to outsiders and enemies. The saying is attached to essentially the same material (Matt. 5.43-47 = Luke 6.27, 32-35). In fact, Gundry sees a common Old Testament referent for both versions of this saying, illustrated below (Use 73):

 

    Lev. 19.2   Deut. 18.3  
Matt. 5.48 Luke 6.36 BHS LXX BHS LXX
Ἔσεσθε οὖν

ὑμεῖς

τέλειοι

ὡς

ὁ πατὴρ

ὑμῶν ὁ

οὐράνιος

τέλειός

ἐστιν.

γίνεσθε

 

οἰκτίρμονες

καθὼς

ὁ πατὴρ

ὑμῶν

 

οἰκτίρμων

ἐστίν

קְדֹשִׁים

תִּהְיוּ

כִּי

קָדוֹשׁ,

יְהוָה

אֲנִי

אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

Ἅγιοι

 

ἔσεσθε

ὅτι

ἐγὼ

ἅγιος

κύριος

ὁ θεὸς

ὑμῶν

תָּמִים

 

תִּהְיֶה

עִם

יְהוָה

אֱלֹהֶיךָ

 

τέλειος

 

ἔσῃ

ἐναντίον

κυρίου

τοῦ θεοῦ

σου

 

Behind Matt. 5.48 (Luke 6.36) then, is a well-known injunction: “You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19.2). The perfecting concept inherent in τέλειος  is imported from תָּמִים in Deut. 18.13 (“You shall be blameless before the LORD your God”). Luke has probably incorporated his οἰκτίρμων from רָ֫חַם, to make plain the idea that believers are to imitate God’s compassionate concern for outsiders (Ps. 145.8-9; cf. Deut. 10.17-19; cf. Nolland, Luke 300). Again, here is an example of Jesus telling them something they have already heard. What probably would have astounded his first hearers was his insistence that being holy as the Father is holy, and that being blameless before the Lord, required demonstrating tangible love toward those considered outsiders—even hostile outsiders—when there was no assurance of reciprocity, and in fact, every assurance that there most likely would not be. This Jesus did by attaching his imperative of perfection to illustrations of God showing compassion regardless of the character of the recipient.

What does this text indicate about the function of loving and praying for enemies in the life of the church, and how is it related to the perfection for which Christ calls in 5.48? Piper’s work cited above places an emphasis on the restoration of the enemy effected by loving and praying for them (143-44). While such a restorative emphasis is in keeping with the overall tone of Matt. 5-7, these words are not primarily about cause and effect. Rather, loving enemies and interceding on their behalf is the primary way we embody the perfection called for in Matt. 5.48. Bonhoeffer argues along similar lines:

Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition, upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves. (Cost 166)

What Bonhoeffer was proposing is essentially that we preach and practice what Jesus preached and practiced. He preached reconciliation (Matt. 5.9, 23-26, 43-48), and offered his life for reconciliation (2 Cor. 5.19-21; Col. 1.19-20). The shape of our discipleship is then determined by the pattern displayed by Jesus: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2.10). This correlation of suffering to perfection also appears in James: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.2-4). This route to perfection suggests the imitatio Dei described in Matt. 5.45, 48: “the achieving of a ‘perfect work’ of moral endeavor is not simply human endeavor writ large . . . but is set on the divine pattern which sets the standard and inspires the believer” (R. P. Martin 17). The imperative of perfection is embodied insofar as we imitate God by sharing in his experience of showing love to those who are hostile. In our imitation of this aspect of his character, we are made perfect.

We may find another aid in our quest to read this text for social embodiment in the syntax of Matt. 5.43-48. While the main verbs of the preceding triads have been singular, in this section, they switch into the second person-plural. Also, in Matt. 5.48, prefacing the imperative of perfection is the emphatic second-person plural, ὑμεῖς. This shift is quite telling. “We can never achieve this ‘wholeness’ simply by ourselves,” writes Bonhoeffer, “but only together with others” (Letters 108). The fact is, in Matthew’s account, Jesus uses the Sermon on the Mount as a paradigm for transformation, addressed to his disciples. It functions as a community-forming document, and Jesus’ emphasis on ὑμεῖς here signals a word on seeking perfection in solidarity:

Our only hope of living as the community of the Sermon on the Mount is to acknowledge that we do not retaliate, hate, curse, lust, divorce, swear, brag, preen, worry, or backbite because it is not in the nature of our God or our destination that we should be such a people. When we as individuals fail in these instances, we do not snatch up cheap forgiveness, but we do remember that the ecclesial is larger than the sum of our individual failures and that it is pointed in a direction that will carry us away from them. (Lischer 161-62)

 


[i] This is not to suggest that Qumran was the only group among which this was taught, only that those documents may reflect a certain strand of thought within first-century Judaism.

[ii] “Everything” could be translated “everyone” (Charlesworth 24).

[iii] All references to Qumran documents are from Martínez.

 

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

—. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Charlesworth, James H. “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Historical Jesus.” Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ed. James H. Charlesworth. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 1‑73.

Davies, W. D. The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Gundry, Robert H. The Use of the Old Testament in Matthew’s Gospel, with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Vol. 18. Leiden: Brill, 1975.

Lischer, Richard. “The Sermon on the Mount as Radical Pastoral Care.” Interpretation 41 (1987): 157-69.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 48. Nashville: Nelson, 1988.

Martínez, Florentino García. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Second ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Nolland, John. Luke 1-9:20. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 35a. Dallas: Word, 1989.

Piper, John. ‘Love Your Enemies’: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Early Christian Paraenesis, a History of the Tradition and Interpretation of its Uses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

 

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