Formations 08.02.2015: Loving—and Forgiving—Our Enemies

Matthew 5:43-48; 22:36-40; John 13:34-35

Two days after Dylann Roof murdered nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the families of his victims posted a YouTube video in which they extended forgiveness and urged Roof to repent. Recently, author Peter Georgescu reflected on this surprising development, writing,

Many are still trying to comprehend this miracle of kindness and compassion after the racially motivated bloodbath at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was awe-inspiring and genuinely humbling to watch these afflicted people speaking directly to their tormentor with a “peace that surpasses all understanding” manifest in their eyes and the sound of their voices. They were trying to save a man who had killed those they loved. For many non-believers, their compassion has been incomprehensible, maybe even offensive. That reaction shows how little Christianity’s detractors understand the nature of this faith: it pivots on a radical kind of love for friends and enemies both. This love transcends all other considerations, because self-interest withers away in the light of what’s eternal for a Christian, the chance to embody God’s goodness every minute of every day.

Emanuel AME Church memorial after the attack of June 17, 2015

Emanuel AME Church memorial after the attack of June 17, 2015

As Georgescu explains, this initiative springs out of a “lineage of goodness” inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., who was in turn inspired by Gandhi, who was in turn inspired by Leo Tolstoy. And, of course, Tolstoy was inspired by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Loving one another (John 13) and one’s neighbor (Matt 22) seem ridiculously easy compared to the command to love one’s enemies (Matt 5). No one, it seems, is outside the set of people Christians are expected to love. When conflict is on the horizon—or even at the door—we must remember that all parties involved are to be treated with Christlike love.

This, Georgescu says, “is the heart of Christianity, something radically different from our ordinary impulses.”

Peter A. Georgescu, “Christian Love Can Change the World,” The Huffington Post, 15 Jul 2015

“Victims’ relatives forgive, urge shooter to repent,” YouTube, 19 Jun 2015


• What would it take for you to forgive someone who caused you or your family great harm?
• Why is love such an important part of faithful discipleship?
• What does it mean to “love” someone who may wish us ill?
• Whom do you perceive as your “enemy”? How could you show love to such a person?
• What words or actions are required of Christians when they disagree and even face open conflict among themselves or with nonbelievers?

Reference Shelf

Love in the Synoptic Gospels

The concept of love in the Synoptics primarily reflects the demands of the Shema and Lev 19:18. When asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus quotes Deut 6:4-5, then adds to it Lev 19:18: Love God and love your neighbor (Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27; Matt 22:37-39). Thus, Jesus affirms the OT link between worship and ethics, but his interpretation is still more radical. Jesus extends the understanding of neighbor beyond the borders of Israel and beyond the bounds of kinship: Jesus demands love of the enemy (Matt 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36). From within this Christological perspective, the Synoptics provide a radical interpretation and application of the OT concept of love—both its gifts and its demands. To practice this type of love for neighbor and enemy bears evidence of one’s love for Jesus and for God (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 7:47).

Edwin K. Broadhead, “Love in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 526.

Love for Enemies

The material in Matthew 5:43-48 concludes and in some ways sums up the antithesis section of the Sermon on the Mount and requires close scrutiny. The format is again the familiar “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” Verse 43 begins with a partial quote from Leviticus 19:18 (cf. the fuller quote at Matt 19:19), which only leaves out the “as yourself” portion of the quote, and is followed by a statement found nowhere in the Old Testament or in rabbinic literature—”hate your enemies.” There is something of a parallel to this found at Qumran (1QS 3-4, 9-10; 19.21-22) where it is said one may love the sons of light and hate the sons of darkness. One can imagine a statement that means love your friends and love your enemies somewhat less, but that is not what we have here. One can also imagine the Qumran saying being offered up by a Zealot as well, but it is not characteristic of Judaism at its highest and best, though there must have been many settings during Roman occupation when such an idea was thought if not expressed….

In v. 46 we have a deliberately offensive comparison—if you love those who love you, how are you any different from the despised custom officials (Jews who had permission to collect taxes and tolls for the Romans)? Even Gentiles greet and treat their own well or kindly. Thus a comparison is made between followers of Jesus and the two least favorite groups for observant Jews—Gentiles and tax collectors. To be told that one was no better than these two despised groups would be patently offensive, however true the remark. The point is that such self-serving in-group love is nothing exceptional (perisson). Jesus does not mince words here.

Too often v.48 has been isolated from its context, but as the noun makes clear, this statement is the conclusion to what has gone before, and what has gone before is the exhortation to love as the Father loves. The key word here is of course teleioi. But is the Evangelist referring to character, conduct, or wholeness in relationships? Clearly the command to love in the previous verses was not a command to have warm feelings toward others, but rather an exhortation to a certain kind of conduct or activity including praying. Thus I take it that the term here is not referring to some sort of state or condition of sinless perfection; it is talking about a form of conduct that only arises out of a new and whole relation- ship with God. To be perfect here means to love in the same indiscriminate way that God loves, as was just described. Deuteronomy 18:13 may stand in the background here, which refers to being tamim or blameless, and one could point to Leviticus 19:2 where there is the exhortation to be holy as God is holy, but more is surely meant here than simply wholeness of relationships or blamelessness in activity. Rather a positive concept of complete and self-sacrificial loving is in view, and here Hill is near to the mark when he says, “The emphasis is not on flawless moral character, but on whole-hearted devotion to the imitation of God, not in perfection of his being but of his ways.… In their acts of love, reconciliation, and faithfulness, the disciples are to show God’s attitude to men, that perfection in love which seeks the good of all.”

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 137–39.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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