Matthew 5:43. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
44. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45. 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.
46. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47. And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48. You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The statement that Christ quotes here does not appear in any single place in the Old Testament, but is scattered here and there throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, where it talks about the enemies of Israel among the surrounding Gentiles, like Moab, Ammon, and Amalek.53 Although it does not expressly say that they should hate their enemies, still this follows from statements like the one in Deuteronomy 23:6, that they should never do anything good for the Ammonites, the Moabites, and their other enemies, nor ever wish them good fortune or success. This was indeed a great concession and a generous grant to the Jews, and one which they used to good advantage. But here as elsewhere they misunderstood this, going to extremes and misusing it to gratify their own whims. Hence Christ has to reinterpret it and show them what the Law really meant. They had neglected this and had laid emphasis only upon the statements that sounded as if they supported their position. Thus they provided backing for their own crookedness.
Here again you must note the distinction, and primarily the fact that He is speaking only about what Christians as Christians should do, and in particular what they should do on account of the Gospel and their Christianity. My reply to someone else’s hate or envy, slander or persecution should not be more hatred and persecution, slander and curses, but rather my love and help, my blessings and my prayers. For a Christian is the kind of man who knows no hatred or hostility against anyone at all, whose heart is neither angry nor vindictive, but only loving, mild, and helpful. That is how our Lord Christ is, and His heavenly Father Himself, to whom He points here as the pattern.
Now the question arises: What is to be said about the fact that the Scriptures often talk about holy men cursing their enemies, even about Christ and His apostles doing so? Would you call that blessing their enemies? Or how can I love the pope when every day I rebuke and curse him—and with good reason, too? The answer, put as simply as possible, is this: I have often said that the office of preaching is not our office but God’s. But whatever is God’s, that we do not do ourselves; but He does it Himself, through the Word and the office, as His own gift and business.54 Now, it is written in John 16:8 that it is the office and work of the Holy Spirit to convince the world. But if He is to convince it, He cannot act the hypocrite or play the flattering gentleman and say what it would like to hear. He must rebuke it vigorously and attack it—the way Christ pronounces “Woe!” upon His Pharisees (Matthew 23); the way Paul says to Elymas (Acts 13:10):55 “You son of the devil … full of all villainy!”; the way Stephen reads a hard and sharp text to the high priests (Acts 7:51–55); and especially the way St. Paul (Gal. 1:8) puts it all on one pile and calls everyone ἀνάθεμα, that is, excommunicated and cursed and sentenced to the abyss of hell, who does not preach the pure teaching about faith.
You see, that is how God’s Word proceeds. It challenges the whole world. It reaches into the mouth of the lords and the princes and of everyone else, denouncing and cursing their whole way of life, something that is not proper for you or me to do as individual Christians except in our office and our teaching position. In Psalm 2:10, 11 David dares to do this. He tells all the kings and lords to think, to humble themselves, to fall at the feet of the teaching about Christ, and to let themselves be rebuked and instructed. Otherwise they will be damned instantly and turned over to the devil. I would not dare to do that. But that is the way God’s Word proceeds. It hammers the great and mighty mountains with its thunder and lightning and storms, so that they smoke. It shatters everything that is great and proud and disobedient, as Psalm 29 says. But on the other hand, it is also like a fruitful rain, sprinkling and moistening, planting and strengthening whatever is like the poor, parched plants that are weak and sickly.
Now, it is wrong for someone who is not a teacher and preacher, commissioned to administer the Word of God, to rush in, snapping and snarling and cursing. But whoever has been commissioned with this office, must administer it. And it is wrong for him to neglect it or to be so seared that he refuses to open his mouth and to denounce what should be denounced, irrespective of personal considerations. For example, now we have to say to our bishops that they are tyrants and villains, who flagrantly oppose both God and the law with their violent and capricious dealings. Now when I do this, I am not doing it on my own, but by virtue of my office. Otherwise, as far as my own person is concerned, I ought not to wish or say anything evil to any man on earth; rather I ought to wish everyone well and speak and act kindly toward him. It is not in this way that I am the enemy of the pope, the bishops, and all the enemies who persecute us and continually torment us. From my heart I am perfectly willing to let them have whatever temporal goods, power, and prestige God gives them; and I would do my best to help them keep it all. Indeed, I would be even happier if they were also as rich in spiritual goods as we are, and lacked nothing. And it would be our heart’s delight if by surrendering our own body and life we could bring them to this, rescue them from their blindness, and save them from the power of the devil.
But they simply refuse to have this, and they cannot tolerate or accept any of the good things that we offer them. Therefore we must also let them go their own way, and say: “If we have to make a choice of which should perish, whether the Word of God and the kingdom of Christ or the pope with all his mob, then rather let him go to the abyss of hell, in the name of his god the devil, just so that the Word of God may abide!” If I must bless and praise one of them and curse and damn the other one, then I will bless the Word of God but curse them with everything they have. For I must place the Word of God above everything else. To keep it and to stay with Christ, who is my highest Treasure in heaven and on earth, I must be willing to risk my body and life, the popularity of the world, my goods, my reputation, and all my happiness. For one of these two things has to happen: either the Word of God will abide and conquer them; or at least they will be unable to suppress it, even if they refuse to accept all its grace and goodness and salvation.
In this way a Christian can easily handle the situation and his relations toward both his enemies and his friends. So far as his neighbor’s person is concerned, he will love and bless everyone. But on the other hand, so far as God and His Word are concerned, he will not put up with any transgression. He must give this precedence over everything else and subordinate everything else to it, irrespective of any person, be he friend or foe; for this cause belongs neither to us nor to our neighbor, but to God, whom it is our duty to obey before anything else (Acts 5:29). Consequently I say to my worst enemies: “Where it is only my own person that is involved, there I am very willing to help you and to do everything good for you, in spite of the fact that you are my enemy and that all you ever do for me is to harm me. But where it is the Word of God that is involved, there you must not expect any friendship or love that I may have for you to persuade me to do something against that, even if you were my nearest and dearest friend. But since you cannot endure the Word, I will speak this prayer and benediction over you: ‘May God dash you to the ground!’56 I shall willingly serve you, but not in order to help you overthrow the Word of God. For this purpose you will never be able to persuade me even to give you a drink of water.” In other words, our love and service belong to men. But they belong to God above all; if this is hindered or threatened, love and service are no longer in place. For the command is: “You shall love your enemy and do him good.” But to God’s enemies I must also be an enemy, lest I join forces with them against God.
Thus He has refuted this idea also against the delusion of the Jews, who gave a crooked twist to Scripture57 by maintaining that they were permitted to hate their enemies. He has interpreted the Law to mean that they were to have no enemy at all whom they should hate, in spite of the fact that Moses had told them not to establish or to maintain friendly relations with certain alien heathen, whom not they but God Himself had specifically designated as His enemies. But that they were to regard as their enemies anyone whom they chose, and that they were to curse, persecute, and torment such people—that was not what Moses meant to say. Solomon correctly understood and interpreted Moses, and he says (Prov. 25:21): “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,” a statement which St. Paul also cites (Rom. 12:20). Hating your enemy is proper to a public person and to an office that has been divinely established. But the commandment (Lev. 19:18): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” applies to the common crowd and to each individual in particular.
Look at how high He puts the target. Not only does He denounce those who do harm to their enemies, but He also refuses to call those “pious” who neglect to do them good when they need it. He says first: “Love your enemies.” But “to love” means to be goodhearted and to wish the best, to have a heart that is friendly, kind, and sweet toward everyone, not one that makes fun of misery or misfortune. He also wants us to express this by our words, as He says: “Bless those who curse you.” Thus we should not speak a single harsh word against them, however terrible their abuse, slander, scolding, and curses may be, but only speak to them kindly and wish them well. This is the source of that beautiful Christian saying which some pious people use. When they hear that someone has done them wrong or has played some ugly trick upon them, they say: “May God forgive him!” They are concerned and sympathetic, and all they want is to keep this from bringing any harm to him in his relation to God. That is really a good tongue in response to the evil tongues of others, with both the mouth and the heart demonstrating nothing but love.
In the third place, He wants this kind of heart to become manifest in deeds as well, in all kinds of friendly and cordial works. He says: “Do good to those who hate you.” This is really a very rare virtue. It is the kind of teaching that does not suit the world at all; nature finds it impossible to recompense all sorts of evil with nothing but good, not to be overcome by evil nor by shameful ingratitude but to overcome evil with good, as St. Paul says (Rom. 12:21). For this reason He had laid down the condition earlier (Matt. 5:20) that whoever wants to be a disciple of Christ and to enter the kingdom of heaven must have a righteousness that is different, one that is better than that of the Pharisees and the Jewish saints.
The fourth item, however, “Pray for those who spitefully abuse you and persecute you,” applies more directly to our doctrine and faith than to our person and life. The fact that they persecute us is due to the Word of God: they claim that they are right and that we are wrong. Then it is our duty to pray and to commend our cause to God, for on earth there is no law or judge to vindicate us. Our persecutors are actually in competition not with us, but with God Himself; it is with His kingdom that they are interfering; they are doing the greatest injury not to us but to God Himself; and it is His wrath and condemnation that they have incurred. When we see all this, we should have pity on them and pray for them to be rescued from their blindness and their terrible doom. No one can do us any harm without doing it first to a far greater lord, namely, to the High Majesty in heaven Himself.
Yet all this is valid only in so far as it goes on apart from one’s official responsibility and does not interfere with it. As I have always said, it is necessary carefully to distinguish the teaching that pertains universally to each individual person from the teaching that pertains to persons in an office, whether it be spiritual or secular, whose task it is to punish and to resist evil. Therefore, even though personally they may be gentle, yet administering justice and meting out punishment is their official work; and it has to go on. It would be wrong if their pity moved them to neglect this; for that would be tantamount to helping, strengthening, and encouraging the evil. It is as if I were to say to our enemies, the pope, the bishops, the princes, and all the rest, who are persecuting the Gospel and trampling its poor adherents underfoot: “Gentlemen, may the dear God reward you! You are pious people and holy fathers”; or as if I were to keep quiet, pay them homage, or kiss their feet. No, dear brother, this is what I ought to say: “I am a preacher. I have to have teeth in my mouth. I have to bite and salt and tell them the truth. And if they refuse to hear, then in the name of God I have to excommunicate them, lock them out of heaven, consign them to the fire of hell, and turn them over to the devil.”
Now, whoever has this office of rebuking and denouncing, let him perform it. But apart from that office, let everyone stick to this teaching: You shall not denounce or curse anyone, but you shall wish him everything good and show this in your actions, even though he may act badly; thus you will disclaim all right to mete out punishment, and you will assign it to those whose office it is. Such a person will eventually find a Judge that will not spare him, even though you may not take vengeance or even seek it. God will not let any violence go unpunished, but He Himself will take vengeance on our enemies and will send home to them what they have deserved by the way they have treated us. As He Himself says (Deut. 32:35): “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” On the basis of this, St. Paul admonishes the Christians (Rom. 12:19):58 “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” These words are not only instruction but also consolation, as if He were to say: “Do not take it upon yourselves to avenge yourselves on one another, or to speak curses and maledictions. The person that does you harm or injury is interfering with an office that is not his. He is presuming to inflict punishment or injury upon you without the command of God, indeed, contrary to it. Now, if you do the same, then you, too, are interfering with the office of God and sinning against God as gravely as this man has sinned against you. Therefore keep your fist to yourself. Leave it in the charge of His wrath and punishing, for He will not let it remain unavenged, and His punishment is more severe than you would like. This man has not assailed you but God Himself, and has already fallen into His wrath. He will not escape this. No one ever has. So why get angry with him when the anger of God, immensely greater and more severe than the anger and punishment of the whole world, has already come upon him and has already avenged itself more thoroughly than you ever could? Besides, he has not injured you one tenth as much as he has injured God. When you see him lying under this severe condemnation, why so many curses and threats of vengeance? Rather you should take pity on his plight, and pray for him to be rescued from it and to reform.”
As a confirmation and illustration of this teaching He cites two examples. He says in the first place: “So that you may be the 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.” It is as if He were to say: “If you want to be called true children of the Father in heaven, then let His example move you to live and act the way He does. But what does He do? He makes His sun rise every day, and He sends rain on the pious and on the wicked alike.” Thus by mentioning these two things, the sun and the rain, He has summarized in a few words all the earthly blessings that God grants to the world. If it were not for these two things, or even one of them, the whole world would long since have become a wasteland, desolate and destroyed. If the sun did not rise every day, there could be no daily work; the animals, along with the trees, the plants, and the grass would all perish from the frost. Therefore the sun alone is the source of the incalculable blessing that fills the world and provides nourishment for all who seek it, whether human or animal, as well as of the heat and warmth by which everything stays alive, grows, and propagates itself, instead of perishing. In other words, the benefits that God bestows through the sun every hour and every moment are innumerable. Yet where is there someone who acknowledges this or is thankful for it?
Nevertheless, though God gives, produces, and preserves everything through the sun, still we must have rain as well. If the sun kept on shining all the time, finally everything would dry up and wither away on account of the heat, and no food or grain could grow for man or beast. Therefore He has tempered it with the rain, to revive it all and to preserve its moisture and strength. Now, in these two there are included the four items that belong to life, the items that the philosophers call the “primary qualities”—cold and warm, dry and moist.59 There must not be one member of these pairs without the other. If there were nothing but cold, or nothing but heat, there would be no life. Now, the sun brings two of these items, the heat and the dryness, and the rain also brings two, that it is cold and moist. Thus to the whole world, to His enemies as well as His friends, God gives body and life and everything it needs and uses, generously and freely every day. Indeed, He rains most copiously on a desert, a wild forest, or an ocean, where it is utterly useless, while He sends only scant showers where pious people live. And He gives the best kingdoms and countries and people and money and goods to the worst scoundrels, while to the pious He hardly gives enough bread to eat.
Everywhere throughout the wide world, God is displaying these examples to us, as if He wanted to admonish us by them and to say to us: “Don’t you know what sort of man I am, and what sort of good I am doing for you? Ask the sun and the moon and the rain about it, ask everything that is cold or wet or warm or dry. Then you will see that I show innumerable benefits not only to My Christians but even more to the wicked people, who are not grateful to Me but repay Me with their intense persecution of My Son and of the pious Christians.” Thus you must be ashamed of yourself when you look at the sun, which preaches this to you every day, ashamed even when you are in a field and you look at a little flower or at the leaf of a tree. For this is written all over the leaves and the grass. There is no bird so small, indeed, no fruit or berry or grain so tiny, that it does not show this to you and say: “For whom do I bear my beautiful fruits and berries? For the vilest rogues and rascals on earth.” How you must reproach yourself, then, for your lack of love toward God, your failure to do any favors for your neighbor, and your refusal to show at least some regard for others, when He is continually doing you so much good by means of all the creatures?
There is not a single man on earth who has to put up with one per cent of what He has to suffer every day from evil men. Not only are His possessions and all His creatures misused for sinful and shameful ends; but also the very men who have these possessions in the greatest abundance—kings, lords, and princes—hate Him and His Word as much as they do the devil himself. If they could, they would gladly exterminate it in one fell swoop. They incessantly fume against it with nothing but abuse, curses, and slander, and besides they batter it with their fists. So there is no one on earth that is the object of more hatred and envy, of more vicious tricks, than are His Christians. Now, this is what He has to put up with daily from the whole world. Still He is so faithful that daily He sends the sunshine and His other superabundant blessings upon people who do not deserve even to have a blade of grass or a moment of sunshine, but to be showered with incessant hell-fire and to be pelted with thunderbolts and hailstones, spears and bullets. He really ought to be called a faithful Father for letting such desperate scoundrels have all those possessions, lands, servants, and good weather, for letting them act like the lords of all and the squires of His domain! Why, even the sun and the moon, together with all the creatures, have to serve them, letting themselves be misused in opposition to God by the whims and the wickedness of such people. Now, if we want to be sons of the Father, we ought to let this sublime example move us to live likewise.
The other example is that of the relation among the criminals and murderers themselves. They, too, know the art of sticking together and of backing one another up. They will even put their bodies, their possessions, and their very lives at one another’s disposal; and yet their only aim is to do harm to other people, to rob and murder, and this only for the sake of temporal and uncertain possessions. “Therefore,” He means to say, “you surely ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You call yourselves Christians and sons of God, and you want to get to heaven. You have such a good and faithful Father, who promises and gives you everything good. And yet you are no more devout than robbers and murderers; you are just like all the criminals on earth.” For there have never been people so bad that they did not practice love and friendship toward each other. Otherwise how could their business continue? Even the devils in hell cannot live in opposition to one another, or their kingdom would soon be destroyed, as Christ Himself says (Matt. 12:25, 26).
Do you see now how pious you are if you are friendly and kind only to your friends? You are just about as pious as the thieves and the scoundrels, as the whores and the criminals, or as the devil himself. Yet in your smugness you go around supposing that you are all right, you preen yourself and brag just as though you were an angel. Thus our schismatic spirits now brag about the great love they have in their midst, which makes it obvious that the Holy Spirit is with them. But what is it that they do? They love their own schismatic rabble; but meanwhile they hate us poisonously and murderously, though we have never done them any harm. From this it is obvious what sort of spirit they really have! Yet they have a right to brag that there is as much love among them as among scoundrels, criminals, and murderers, or as much as among the devils. On this basis, no man on earth would be called wicked. There is no one so desperately bad that he does not need to have someone for a friend. How, otherwise, could he live in human society if all he did were to snarl and snap at everyone? Now, if you want to draw the conclusion, “He loves his friends, therefore he is pious and holy,” you would finally have to make the devil and all his followers pious as well. Therefore the conclusion Her intends to draw here, in opposition to the Pharisaic saints, is that everything they teach about love and the like is all wrong. He instructs them to turn the page and to look at the Scriptures correctly if they want to be the people of God, to see correctly and to show love toward their enemies. In this way they could prove that their love was genuine and that they were God’s children, as He shows His love to the ungrateful and to His enemies.
Moses himself had clearly said this, for example, in Exodus 23:4: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him”; and again (Ex. 23:5): “If you see it lying under its burden … you shall help it up.” Here they should have discovered that they had an obligation to love their enemies, too, if they had really looked at the text instead of gliding over it, the way our blind theologians skim over the surface of the Scriptures. For since the command here is to pick up and help an ass or an ox that belongs to an enemy, it means that they should do so all the more when danger threatens the enemy himself in his person or property, wife or children. In other words, this is what it says: “You shall not desire harm for your neighbor but prevent it, and, if possible, help him and promote his advantage. In this way you can finally move him, and by your kindness you can overcome and soften him. Thus all he can do is to love you in return, because he sees and experiences nothing evil in your treatment of him, but only pure love and sheer goodness.”
With this teaching and these examples Christ now concludes this chapter: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here our sophists have spun out many dreams about perfection and have applied them all to their orders and classes—as if only priests and monks were in a state of perfection, the one higher than the other, the bishops higher than all the others, and the pope the highest of all. By this means the word “perfection” becomes completely inapplicable to the ordinary Christian way of life, as if such people could not be called perfect or be perfect. But you hear Christ talking here not to bishops, monks, and nuns, but in general to all Christians who are His pupils, who want to be called the sons of God, and who do not want to be like the publicans and criminals as are the Pharisees and our clergy.
How does it come about that they are perfect? The answer—in brief, because elsewhere I have discussed it in more detail 60—is this: We cannot be or become perfect in the sense that we do not have any sin, the way they dream about perfection. Here and everywhere in Scripture “to be perfect” means, in the first place, that doctrine be completely correct and perfect, and then, that life move and be regulated according to it. Here, for example, the doctrine is that we should love not only those who do us good, but our enemies, too. Now, whoever teaches this and lives according to this teaching, teaches and lives perfectly.
But the teaching and the life of the Jews were both imperfect and wrong, because they taught that they should love only their friends, and they lived accordingly. Such a love is chopped up and divided, it is only half a love. What He wants is an entire, whole, and undivided love, where one loves and helps his enemy as well as his friend. So I am called a truly perfect man, one who has and holds the doctrine in its entirety. Now, if my life does not measure up to this in every detail—as indeed it cannot, since flesh and blood incessantly hold it back—that does not detract from the perfection. Only we must keep striving for it, and moving and progressing toward it every day. This happens when the spirit is master over the flesh, holding it in cheek, subduing and restraining it, in order not to give it room to act contrary to this teaching. It happens when I let love move along on the true middle course, treating everyone alike and excluding no one. Then I have true Christian perfection, which is not restricted to special offices or stations, but is common to all Christians, and should be. It forms and fashions itself according to the example of the heavenly Father. He does not split or chop up His love and kindness, but by means of the sun and the rain He lets all men on earth enjoy them alike, none excluded, be he pious or wicked.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:118). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.