Love for enemies. 5:38-48


In our passage for study from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues to expound surpassing righteousness as it applies to the laws of vengeance and love.

The passage

v38. Jesus quotes the principle of proportionate retribution found in the Old Testament, Ex.21:25-25 etc., This principle is also found in ancient secular law codes eg. the Code of Hammurabi. This law served to restrain blood-feuding, ie. the punishment must not exceed the crime.

v39. Jesus' exposition on vengeance describes true perfection; "do not retaliate". It could be argued that Jesus is restricting retribution for personal insult while allowing justice to continue at the legal level. The trouble is this serves to reduce the law to the doable, cf. 5:19. In reality, this law cannot be obeyed. Jesus, with the illustration of a strike on the face, makes the point that perfection requires that we take the insult without retaliation. Of course, to not return evil for evil is to place ourselves under the subjection of those with evil intent.

v40. Jesus goes on to expound Exodus 22:25-27. Under the law, if we owe someone money they can take, as surety, everything except our upper garment. They can take this "cloak" during the day, but must return it in the evening. So, if we would be perfect, we cannot even claim our upper garment when there is a debt to repay. If we would be perfect we can't create a financial safety net.

v41. A Roman soldier had the right to commandeer civilians to carry their pack for 1,000 paces. If we would be perfect we should freely go the extra mile, even for a hated enemy.

v42. Total generosity is self defeating; "there would soon be a class of saintly paupers, owing nothing, and another of prosperous idlers and thieves", Leon Morris. A perfection of unselfish generosity toward others, apart from our personal rights, is not only beyond our capacity, it is not even possible in a sinful world. Such righteousness cannot be done.

v43. Jesus now expounds the perfect law of love. The Old Testament law encourages love toward a fellow Jew, but on the other hand, it certainly doesn't encourage hate toward an outsider, a foreigner. "You shall love your compatriot but you need not love your adversary", Jeremias. cf. Deut.23:3-6.

v44. For those who would be perfect their love must be non-discriminatory. Not just sentimental love, but a total desire for the good of others, even persecutors.

v45. Such non-discriminatory love belongs to God's character. His natural blessings fall on all humanity. Even his special fatherly love of forgiveness and mercy is for all who ask.



v46-47. Discriminatory love is no great burden. Even sinners pick and choose who they show love toward; God's law of love is on a higher plane than that.

v48. Jesus now summarizes his demand for surpassing righteousness: God requires of us perfection.

Exceeding righteousness

In chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus develops a doctrine of a right-standing in the sight of God that is by grace through faith. He declares, in the Beatitudes, that the "kingdom of heaven" is possessed by those who are broken before God, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He supports this claim by expounding the perfection of the law, and in so doing removes any ground for self-righteousness. He sums up his teaching on the law in v48; "there must be no limit to your goodness", REB.

Who can claim such perfection? Are there any who can claim to be the wise builder who has built their house on the rock - "who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice"? Matt.7:24-27. How then shall we be saved? "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God", Eph.2:8.

It is true that Jesus' ideals provide a guide for Christian living, but above all they serve to undermine any claim that we may have to self-righteousness. The only way we can stand before the living God is in the faithfulness of Christ; only in his perfection can we become sons of our Father in heaven.


1. If this passage exposes my imperfection, how can I "be perfect"?

2. Jesus warned against "relaxing" the law (reducing its potency) v19. Illustrate from the passage how Jesus' words can be made doable.

3. Discuss how you might "not resist an evil person", and "give to the one who asks you", while not becoming a doormat, a sucker.

4. How is it that these ideals promote evil? (Assuming being a doormat is evil).

5. Honestly assess to what degree you can love those who hurt you. Does God expect you to forgive all who hurt you, or only those who are sorry for hurting you? If kindness in the face of hate is "heaping coals on their head", is such kindness a good or an evil?

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