Up to this point in His sermon, Jesus has already made many radical, counter-cultural statements. But this one seems to top them all: love your enemies. Both in that era and today, that is a radical claim. Everything in us and in our culture tells us to hate those who hate us.
Jesus, again, takes a cultural norm of the day: "You have heard it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'" Now, this is not Jesus correcting the Old Testament. The Old Testament does not need correction. This is Jesus correcting the misinterpretations of the Old Testament by the religious leaders of the day. Nowhere in the Old Testament was it ever commanded to "hate your enemy." That was created by the religious leaders of the day.
Rather, Christ commands His followers to love and pray for their enemies! This is much easier said than done. Even among the most pacifistic people, the belief is that we should simply ignore those who hate us. That is not what Jesus says here either. Rather, He says that we should pay attention (this is inferred by the command to pray for them), and still choose to love them. Besides, even the tax collectors (some of the most immoral people at the time) love those who love them. But Christ-followers are to be different. We are to love everyone, both those who treat us well and those who mistreat us.
Jesus ends His statement on loving your enemies with some difficult words: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." I think Dr. Daniel Akin (a graduate of my Alma Mater, Criswell College, I might add!) sums it up so well, so I will end with his words: "God's expectation is clear even if in our own efforts it is utterly impossible. We must 'be perfect.' In the greater context of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea of moral purity and practice is also before us. We are to reflect the character of the God to whose kingdom we now belong. This is where we are headed in our future glorification. Who and what we will be someday in eternity should impact how we love and conduct ourselves today. We are to be what we are becoming....We pursue perfection as He is perfect."
May we pursue perfect Christ-likeness, as we continually cling to the cross, trusting that it is the Holy Spirit changing us all along the way!