Some people mistakenly think that the proverbial saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is some where in the Bible. Well it’s not. Actually, it came from one of Aesop’s fables, Hercules and the Waggoneer. A waggoneer driving a heavily loaded wagon became stuck in a muddy road. The more the horses pulled, the deeper the wheels sank in the mud. So he prayed to Hercules for help, who then replied that the wagoneer should get up off his knees and put his shoulder to the wheel. The moral of the fable was: “The gods help them that help themselves.”
In a similar way, Jesus corrected in Matthew 5:43-48 what had become a misapplication of the commandment to love your neighbor in Leviticus 19:18. In preceding passages of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced teachings from Scripture with the phrase that begins 5:43: “You have heard it said” (Matthew 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38). But here “what was said” was not from Scripture. Instead of the command to Love your neighbor as yourself,” it seems that what was being taught was “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say, “Hate your enemy.”
There were passages that called for the destruction of Israel’s enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) or counseled to keep your distance from non-Israelites (Exodus 34:12). Yet you were to feed your enemy (Proverbs 25:21-22) and help them when they were in need (Exodus 23:4-5). The Old Testament teaching on how you were to treat your enemies was complex, according to Leon Morris. In his commentary on Matthew, he said:
All this means that those who summed up Old Testament teaching as calling for love for neighbors and hatred for enemies were oversimplifying. The call for hatred is certainly the kind of addition to the command that many have put into practice.
Again, instead of lowering the bar to the common social standard he quoted in 5:43, Jesus said his followers were to love their enemies and pray for them!
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. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Jesus named two groups who were widely seen as enemies by the ordinary Jew—tax collectors and Gentiles (non-Jews). Don’t they take care of their own; don’t they love one another? So if you love only those who love you; if you only greet others like you (your brothers), how are you different from the tax collectors and the Gentiles?
While tax collectors are never popular in any culture (think of the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S.), in first-century Palestine they were particularly unpopular. Not only would they collect taxes for the Romans, they would also be sure to get some extra for themselves. Leon Morris commented, “In the eyes of Jesus’ audience there were no more wicked people than tax collectors as a class.” That’s the point of the encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). They were the last ones you would expect to show love to others. The implied question is shouldn’t your love for others be greater?
The verse about greeting your brother is deeper in meaning than most people realize. When first-century Jews greeted one another, they would say “Peace,” which was in fact like saying a prayer; something like this: “May the peace of the Lord be upon you.” In our culture we say “good-bye” without remembering we are actually saying a shortened form of: “God by with you.” So making a sincere greeting meant you expressed goodwill and welcome to your brother. Shouldn’t your wishes and greetings to others be more sincere than the Gentiles?
The final command in verse 48, “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” seems to set an unreachable standard—be as perfect as God the Father. But that’s not what it means. The sense of the Greek word for “perfect” here pertains to you being fully developed in a moral sense. Look, your Father in heaven lets the sun rise and the rain fall upon both the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. Shouldn’t you do the same? The command to love your neighbor as yourself includes loving your enemies. Isn’t that the same message as in the parable of the Good Samaritan?
There is an interesting grammatical structure in verse 5:45b called a chiasm, named after the Greek letter chi, which looks like an “X.” The verse reads: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The crossing/chiasm is between the “evil” and “unjust” as well as the “good” and the “just.” The crossing pattern is accomplished by taking the first pair of contrasting words, evil and good, and then reversing the position in the second pair of contrasting words: just and unjust. So the chiasm looks like this:
The chiastic structure helps to reinforce the point of the passage. It gives a visual warning to the followers of Jesus: they are not to follow the contrasting advice of loving their neighbor and hating their enemy. Rather, just as their heavenly Father sends sun upon the evil and the good, and rain upon both the just and the unjust, they are to love and not hate their enemies. This action of God’s is known as the principle of common grace, where the good things of the world like sun and rain fall equally upon the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. God does not withhold the gifts of rain and sunshine from people who are evil or unjust. So followers of Christ should withhold love from their enemies.
In an active addiction, addicts and alcoholics make a lot of enemies. The hostility in these relationships can be either a one-way or a two-way street. You resent one another in mutual hostility. But you resent what someone did—or they resent what you did—in one-way hostility. The remedy for this in recovery is stated in Matthew 5:44: love and pray for your enemies. In order to do so, you have to let go of your resentment.
When discussing the Fourth Step in the “How It Works” chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. said: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” It leads to various forms of spiritual disease—“a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.” If the alcoholic is to live, they have to be free of anger. Realize that the people who wronged you were perhaps spiritually sick as well. “We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend.”
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”