Mercy is NOT Optional

Mercy and love are the defining characteristics of his disciple and reflect the true nature of his Father – Matthew 5:43-48

Crosses - Photo by Federico Tasin on Unsplash
In the middle of his ‘
Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus exhorted his disciples to become “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But how can anyone even hope to emulate the perfect righteousness of God? However, as he explained, his followers emulate his Father by performing acts of mercy to their enemies - [Photo by Federico Tasin on Unsplash].

Self-sacrificial love and showering mercy on others, especially one’s enemy, goes to the very heart of Christ’s message and mission, the Messiah of Israel who gave his life willingly for others even when they were yet “enemies of God.”
  • (Matthew 5:43-48) – “You have heard that it was said, You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Be loving your enemies and praying for them who are persecuting you that you may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens because He makes his sun rise on evil and good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward have you? Are not even the tax collectors doing the same thing? And if you salute your brethren only, what more than common are you doing? Are not even the Gentiles doing the same thing? You, therefore, shall become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

LAW AND PROPHETS

The conjunction “therefore” connects the final exhortation to what preceded it (“therefore, become perfect”), namely, the statement about loving enemies. It is precisely by doing this that the disciple becomes “perfect like his heavenly Father.”

Moreover, the paragraph concludes the larger literary unit that began with his declaration that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets.

What was germinal under the Mosaic law came to fruition in the life and teachings of Jesus. But now, in the messianic age, unless the disciple’s “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” he will not enter the kingdom - (Matthew 5:17-20).

EXAMPLES

His declaration concerning the “law and prophets” is followed by six examples of how one’s “righteousness” surpasses that of the “scribes and Pharisees.” In each case, he does not simply reaffirm the Law of Moses, but he pierces through it to its true intent, and this especially comes to the surface in how his disciples treat others.

For example, Jesus extrapolated from the prohibition of murder that one should not even harbor anger toward another human being. Hatred leads to murder, and instead of simply refusing to kill the disciple must seek reconciliation with others, including one’s “enemy.” Evil is overcome by taking positive actions - (Matthew 5:21-26).

Likewise, the disciple must do more than just abstain from adultery, theft, or murder, the minimal requirement of the Torah. Life in his kingdom demands something beyond the regulations handed down at Mount Sinai.

Jesus turned the law of an “eye for an eye” into the command to “turn the other cheek.” He repudiated the popular interpretation that added the clause, “and hate your enemy” to the love commandment. Since Leviticus explicitly commanded love to fellow Israelites but omitted any mention of the Gentiles, so the logic went, hatred of enemies was permissible - (Leviticus 19:18).

MERCY

But he rejected this wrongheaded interpretation. Since the commandment prohibits any act of vengeance, plainly, the Law does not allow for the hatred of anyone, whether Jew or Gentile or friend or enemy. A man takes vengeance against someone who acts against his interests, but Christ’s disciple is summoned to love his enemy and pray for anyone who abuses him.

Does God not send the rain on the just and the unjust? This statement is derived from the final clause of Leviticus 19:18. After commanding Israel not to take vengeance, God stressed His identity, “I am Yahweh.” Giving mercy to the deserving and the undeserving is fundamental to the nature of the One who revealed Himself as “Yahweh,” the one “who is” and who keeps His covenant promises.

If the disciple limits his love to friends and family, how is he any different than the tax collector or Gentile, let alone the Scribes and Pharisees? All of us quite naturally love those who do good to us. However, loving your mortal enemy is something altogether different, foreign to our nature, and certainly contrary to the wisdom of this age.

L0ve is something more than a feeling or an abstract idea, and it is demonstrated in concrete acts of mercy. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him to drink.” Likewise, John would write decades later, “let us not love in word, but in deeds.”

Moreover, Jesus engaged in the ultimate act of mercy when he gave “gave his life a ransom for many,” including his friends and the enemies of God – (Matthew 20:25-28Romans 12:20, 1 John 3:18).

Righteousness is not demonstrated by restraining ourselves from committing sin. It certainly is not defined by the evil that we do not do. Instead, it is manifested by the good done for others, especially for our opponents and persecutors. Certainly, we must avoid sin, but that by itself does NOT make us righteous or justify us before God, and it certainly does not make us “perfect as our heavenly Father.”

And Christ’s simple command to love our enemies and do good to those who abuse us, demonstrates eloquently that in his kingdom there is no place for hatred, violence, or retaliation, period.



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