In his renowned Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his audience to love their enemies and to pray for those persecuting them. (Read Matthew 5:43-45.) Those present on that occasion were Jews, who were aware of God’s command: “You must not take vengeance nor have a grudge against the sons of your people; and you must love your fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) First-century Jewish religious leaders held that “the sons of your people” and “your fellow” referred only to Jews. The Mosaic Law required that the Israelites stay separate from other nations, but the viewpoint had developed that all non-Jews were enemies, to be hated as individuals.
In contrast, Jesus declared: “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” (Matt. 5:44) His disciples were to act lovingly toward all who showed hostility to them. According to the Gospel writer Luke, Jesus said: “I say to you who are listening, Continue to love your enemies, to do good to those hating you, to bless those cursing you, to pray for those who are insulting you.” (Luke 6:27, 28) Like first-century individuals who took Jesus’ sayings to heart, we “do good to those hating” us by responding to their hostility with gracious actions. We “bless those cursing” us by speaking to them in a kind way. And we “pray for those persecuting” us with physical violence or other forms of “insulting” treatment. Such petitions are loving requests that persecutors might have a change of heart and take action that brings them Jehovah’s favor.
Why show love for our enemies? “That you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens,” said Jesus. (Matt. 5:45) If we heed that counsel, we become “sons” of God in that we imitate Jehovah, who “makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous.” As Luke’s account puts matters, God “is kind toward the unthankful and wicked.”—Luke 6:35.
Stressing how important it was for his disciples to ‘continue loving their enemies,’ Jesus said: “If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Are not also the tax collectors doing the same thing? And if you greet your brothers only, what extraordinary thing are you doing? Are not also the people of the nations doing the same thing?” (Matt. 5:46, 47) If we were to limit our love to those who reciprocate, this would not merit any “reward,” or favor, from God. Even tax collectors, who were generally despised, showed love for people who loved them.—Luke 5:30; 7:34.
The common Jewish greeting included the word “peace.” (Judg. 19:20; John 20:19) This was an implied wish for the health, welfare, and prosperity of the person greeted. It would not be an “extraordinary thing” if we were to greet only those whom we consider to be our “brothers.” As Jesus pointed out, something similar was done by “people of the nations.”
Inherited sin made it impossible for Christ’s disciples to be flawless, perfect. (Rom. 5:12) Yet, Jesus concluded this part of his discourse by saying: “You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) He was thereby encouraging his listeners to imitate their “heavenly Father,” Jehovah, by perfecting their love—making it complete by loving their enemies. The same thing is expected of us.