"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
An over-arching theme of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is how God calls us to live isn't about outward living for the sake of obedience but about the inward state of our heart that flows out through the way we live. This is why He makes the point here that those who love and pray for their enemies are living out of their status as children of God. As the adopted sons and daughters of God, we have submitted our hearts to the authority and goodness of God and therefore follow His ways, knowing they are far better than our ways and that they are the only avenue to a full and abundant life. Jesus even asks them what reward will they have for doing what feels natural and only loving those who love them? Rather, the true reward comes through the humility and sacrifice of choosing to love someone who has hated us, who has sought to hurt us, who has slandered, betrayed, or ignored us.
"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" are, ironically, extremely controversial words. When we hear them, we are filled with an array of feelings, thoughts, and also questions. Mostly, questions intended to make this "command" more do-able for us…Who is my enemy? What exactly does Jesus mean by "love?" What kind of prayers do I need to pray for those who hurt me? We look for loopholes and ways to get around something so unreasonable and contrary to our flesh.
The Pharisees and Scribes did the same when they were confronted with the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself." As they considered who is their "neighbor", it seemed obvious that those who hurt and set themselves against them were not their neighbors. So, they concluded that we are to love our neighbor but hate our enemy. Surely that makes the most sense and seems quite reasonable! In my heart, it does as well.
A question they would not have thought to consider is, "What do you mean by love?" Because the Greek language had several words for love, when Jesus used the word "agape," they knew exactly what He meant. Agape love is not the kind of love you have for family, your spouse, or for your close friends. It wasn't about attraction, emotions, or feelings. Agape love is the kind of love God has for us. It is sacrificial, undeserved, full of grace, and seeks the highest good of the other. And because it is not a feeling, it is action-oriented. Agape love doesn't stay neutral and keep its distance but intentionally and actively sacrifices for the other and seeks the good of the other. That is why agape love will always result in genuine prayers for the other.
I am slightly relieved by this that I don't need to feel love for someone who has sought to hurt me. Because, to be honest, I'm not even sure I am capable of it no matter how hard I try! But He is also saying not to hate them, not to harbor feelings of aversion and hostility towards them, or even dislike or disgust. Instead, we are called to consider how God sees them and want something better for them, to be free of the bondage they are in that would cause them to hurt us. To desire that they too know the agape love of God. We are called to feel a desire for their wholeness in Christ, that they are blessed and not cursed, just as God blesses all, the just and the unjust. When we do this, we are reflecting God's heart instead of man's. And again, prayer is one of the primary avenues through which we do this.
It is also important to recognize that Jesus does not differentiate here between enemies who are believers versus unbelievers. What He says applies to all people who have set themselves against us. Paul and other New Testament writers are very clear about the reality of this in the Body of Christ, where strife, division, jealousy, gossip, and all sorts of hurt take place. When this happens to you, know that Jesus' words especially ring true in how you are to respond to a fellow believer who has hurt you. As children of God, we must cherish and love God's people just as He does and seek the very best and highest for them despite how they have hurt us, caring for the Bride of Christ in the same sacrificial way He has cared for us. And the only way we can possibly do this is by abiding in Him and allowing the Spirit to work in us so that His love can flow out in the way we live.