Today I again take up Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination.
When Jesus taught, the impression he left was that “he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes“ (Mark 1:22). If Jesus generally used the pattern that appears in the Sermon on the Mount, he certainly would have made that impression. In Matthew 5:21-47 there are six paragraphs that each use the formula “You have heard it said. . .but I say to you. . .” The preface to these paragraphs in 5:17-20 insists that he had not come to do away with the Torah or the prophets. Yet, on his own authority, he expands and reinterprets what some scribes must have taught about anger, lust, divorce, oaths, resistance, and love.
According to Dale Allison this culminates in the command to love one’s enemies. For most of the Sermon on the Mount, he finds similar sayings in both Jewish and pagan sources. And there are some parallels (in Socrates and Buddha) to the notion of love for enemies. But the direct command to love your enemies “appears to be the distinctive invention of Jesus’ own mind” (p. 101).
Although the Hebrew Scriptures do not include this command, they only teach the first half of what Jesus said the people were hearing, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43). But some people, in Jesus’ day, were teaching this. We can find this kind of teaching in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
(A few years ago I was pastor at a church that had installed an internet filter to block inappropriate content. It blocked me from some Dead Sea Scroll texts. Apparently the filter caught hate speech in the texts.)
As Allison points out, they had no concept of hating the sin but loving the sinner. You were supposed to hate both. I can think of parallels to this on the fringes of Christianity and Islam today. The Westboro Baptist Church–the one that pickets soldier’s funerals–comes to mind.
To love your enemy is a hard command. Think about how, in this election year, some of us feel about President Obama, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi and so on. (Confession: Ben Bernanke is the guy I find hardest to love. But I’m retired and trying to earn a little interest on my savings.) I read a comment on a Christian website the other day by someone who, defending herself against the charge of being soft on conservatives, said with no shame, “I loathe Newt Gingrich.” Or, in personal life, think about how ex-spouses often feel about each other.
The point is not that you shouldn’t feel that way. The point is that this is an impossible command as long as you think of love as an emotion. Allison speaks to this issue:
“What is meant by ‘love’? This is clarified by what follows. One is to pray for enemies and do good to them and greet them. Clearly Jesus is not talking about emotions but instead is speaking about actions that benefit others. He is not dictating to our fickle feelings but commanding what can be commanded–our will to do this rather than that” (p. 100).
That loving our enemies does not mean having fond feelings toward them hardly lets us off the hook. As in Matthew 5:23 where Jesus says to leave your gift at the altar and seek reconciliation, loving your enemy means being proactive. You can’t just leave the ugly ditch unfilled. You can’t just let the hostility stand. You have to do something.
I’ll have to work backwards and say something about non-resistance, turning the other cheek, and oaths in another post. But I wanted to first stress this distinct and culminating command of Jesus.