In 1958 Dr. Normal Pittenger published a critique of C.S. Lewis. Among his criticisms was the accusation that Lewis did not care much for the Sermon on the Mount. Lewis’ responded to this accusation this way:
As to “caring for” the Sermon on the Mount, if “caring for” here means “liking” or enjoying, I suppose no one “cares for” it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure. (C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock, 181)
We come to the final lesson of our Inside Out series, which is the final lesson of the fifth chapter of Matthew. This is the last of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount where he quotes what the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were saying and answers that with what the Law of Moses actually taught. Remember that the teachers were lowering God’s standards so that they would think that they are accomplishing God’s law and have a way of righteousness. Jesus is destroying their thinking and showing them that they have not kept God’s law and they need the grace of God if they are going to be righteous in God’s sight. We saw this in the last paragraph where Jesus taught that a person is not to resist the one who is evil but to do good to those who try to harm you. No one has perfectly done this and this teaching again shows us our deficiency before God’s high and holy character and law. The Sermon on the Mount is intended to destroy any sense of self-righteousness that we may feel.
When Leviticus 19:18 taught to love your neighbor, the teachers of the law did not teach this to mean that we are to love every person that we know and come in contact with. Rather the teaching then sounded like this in Matthew 5:43, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Of course the Law of Moses did not teach to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. It only taught to love your neighbor. But these teachers of the law understood this exclude your enemies. We see this illustrated in Luke 10 when Jesus must teach the parable of the Good Samaritan to rid this false thinking. So when God declared that we are to love our neighbors, what did that mean? What did that look like?
Love Your Enemies (5:44)
What our Lord meant when he said to love your neighbor was that you would love even your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Just stop for a moment and listen to that command. Let it sink into your heart. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. It seems unthinkable! It is not the natural course of action for humans. The wonderful thing is that Jesus is not telling us to do something that he did not do himself. Consider how he loved his enemies. Romans 5 reminds us that he came to the earth while all of us were still enemies and died for us so that we could be saved from our sins. Jesus while on the cross prays for his enemies and persecutors. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). But it just seems impossible for us to do, doesn’t it? How can we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Jesus is going to give the motivation and help we need to strive for this goal.
Basis For Loving Enemies: God’s Character (5:45)
Notice the basis given for loving your enemies is “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” What is the point? God’s very nature and practice is to love all people, even enemies. As we noted, we see this in Jesus who loved his enemies and prayed for his persecutors. It is his character and nature. Children resemble their parents. Sons resemble their fathers. We do this so that we resemble our Father in heaven. We show that we are God’s children and in relationship with him when we choose to love our enemies.
But it is even more than this as you will notice in verse 45. Jesus does not merely say that you will be sons of your Father. But there is also a further explanation given. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Do you see the point that Jesus is making? You are to love your enemies because God does good to all. His sun does not just rise on the good but also on the evil. His rain does not only fall on the just but also on the unjust. God shows repeated and prolonged favor on all. We are to resemble the Father and our Father does good to all. We are showing the world that we are children of God when we love all people, including our enemies and not just our friends. Jesus said this also in John 13.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35 ESV)
All people will know that we are disciples when we show love for others. God does the same. He has shown his love for all people.
Basis For Loving Enemies: Called To Be Different (5:46-47)
The second reason we are supposed to love our enemies is because we are called to be different as lovers of God and disciples of Jesus. If we only love those who love us, what have we done that is so special? It is amazing that we think we are doing so well because we love people who love us! We think we are really nailing God’s command because we love our friends and love people who are nice to us. Jesus says that this thinking is crazy. Almost every person does this. What credit is it to you that you love people who love you? You love your spouse, you love your children, you love your parents, and you love the people in this church. Big deal! Yet we can sometimes struggle with this, which shows how far removed we are from obeying this command. Loving people who love you is the easy part. Loving people who are your enemies is the hard part. Do not just love those who love you. Love everyone by doing good for all.
This is expressed again in verse 47. Kindness and greetings to only those you like is also just like the world. Be gracious to all, not just your circle of friends and not just other Christians. Jesus removes all the fences and is breaking down all the walls. Our Lord has left no room for self with this command. We must think about others first, even if they are our enemies. The point Jesus is showing us is that people like us who have been beneficiaries of such undeserved graciousness ought to be able to understand this concept and apply it to others. They receive our undeserved kindness and graciousness because we have received the same from God.
Be Perfect (5:48)
In verse 48 we have a grand and amazing statement is also disturbing. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the ideal: to be perfect. The ultimate mark of perfection is a love that is not determined by the loveliness or attractiveness found in the person. This is how God loves. God’s love is not controlled by the response of the individual. God simply loves because that is who he is. We are called to the same love. Our love for others is not controlled by the response of the individual. Our love is not determined by the loveliness or attractiveness of the individual. We just love because we are adopting God’s character in our lives.
Yet the command is also disturbing in a way. To be perfect like our Father in heaven is the highest of standards. Some have tried to make this idea a little easier by pointing out the word for perfect also means complete and mature. While this is true, because our comparison is to the character of God, it does not help us any. To be complete like our Father is complete or mature as our Father is mature is just as daunting. This command brings us full circle back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that we are to be poor in spirit. When we look at the law of God and see his character in that perfect law, it causes us to be poor in spirit and mourn over our sins, which is what God desires from us. This does not lessen our obligation to the law. This does not mean that since we have failed that we are not required to keep the law. No, the goal is that we must be perfect like our heavenly Father. We strive for this. We strive for perfect love. We strive to turn the other cheek. We strive to go the extra mile. We strive to be truthful. We strive for purity. We strive for not being angry with others. We strive to not insult. That is what the law of God commands.
But at this point we do not read this commands, give each other high fives, thinking that we are doing it. We have not done what God says. We still are not doing what God says even though we have been Christian perhaps for many, many years. Does God want us to keep striving? Absolutely. We are in the process of being sanctified by the word of God. But more than this, we are also to read these commands like our need to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and bow the knee before God, crushed by our failure, declaring the words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Paul was always striving and pressing on to the goal while at the same time saying that he was the chief of sinners and God showed him mercy. The law shows us the character of God and our utter deficiency before him. Let us seek God’s will and strive to obey, all the while understanding that we need to grace of God to bring us home for all of our failures and shortcomings. Know that God loves me still, even when I fall short and even when I was an enemy. Now we go and love our enemies, reflect the love of God to the world.