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Confession time: I’ve always struggled a little with Matthew 5:43–48. Not primarily because I find it difficult to love my enemies, but because I find it difficult to identify my enemies. When I think of “enemies” I tend to think in fantastical terms of Captain America and Red Skull or Superman and Doomsday. Possibly, I might think of nations at war. But I find it difficult to conceive of having personal “enemies.”

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had no such qualms. They easily identified people—particularly Gentiles, and perhaps specifically their Roman oppressors—as enemies and taught their followers to love their neighbour but hate their enemy. Love fellow Jews and hate Gentiles, in other words. Particularly overtly oppressive Gentiles. Once again, Jesus turned this teaching on its head by calling for enemy love.

Now, we don’t live in the divide of the Jewish-Gentile divide that Jesus’ original listeners did. But he helped us to think in terms of “enemies” when he spoke of “those who persecute you.” Elsewhere, he added “those who hate you,” “those who curse you,” and “those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27). And in this very sermon, he identified persecution not only with violent physical threat but also with hateful reviling and false accusation for his sake (5:11).

Drawing all these threads together, your “enemies” are those who persecute you (physically or verbally) for Christ’s sake, who falsely accuse you, who hate you, who curse you, and who abuse you. Pause for a moment and consider the impact of his instruction in this text.

Have you faced verbal (or physical) persecution for your faith? Do you know someone who, for whatever reason, simply hates you? Have you ever been cursed? Are you a victim of abuse? What is your response to those who behave toward you in this manner? The Pharisees said you should hate them as they hate you. Jesus said you should love them, as God loves even his enemies. There is nothing particularly magnanimous about loving those who love you, but loving those who hate, curse, and abuse you is truly Godlike.

God’s kindness to those who hate him sometimes confuses even us. We (rightly) get angry when we hear people openly cursing God and sometimes wonder why he does not end their blasphemy on the spot. But Jesus points out that, quite to the contrary, he gives them sunshine and rain. He gives them the very things that enable them to survive and prosper in this world, even though they so viciously hate him. And he calls us to do the same.

As you think about the definition of “enemies” above, can you identify particular people? Can you picture a former friend with whom you had a falling out who now hates you? Can you think of that colleague who curses you? Do you have an abusive parent or spouse? Do you love them?

Of course, loving your enemies doesn’t mean that you don’t seek to protect yourself in any way. After Saul tried to kill him the second time, David wisely avoided the king. Until it was his time, Jesus frequently evaded those who sought to harm him. But neither David nor Jesus responded in kind.

What does it mean to love your enemies? It means to do good for them. Rather than responding to their hatred in kind, what can you do to serve them and do what is best for them? It means to pray for them—and not to pray for their judgement, but to pray for their good. It means to not seek revenge on them.

All of this sounds terribly countercultural, and it is. Everything in us tells us that we should rather seek to overcome our enemies, but Jesus says that we should instead show ourselves “sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Vengeance belongs to God, not to us. Therefore, our calling is to love and seek the best of those who openly seek our harm. That is surpassing righteousness, indeed.