There is a post doing the rounds of Facebook at the moment that makes the claim that Jesus uttered “dangerous and heretical ideas”, “impossible, dangerous ideas—to love your enemy, to love the poor, to forgive others” which were “terrifying and unconscionable and forbidden in His day.”
It may be a fair assessment of the radical nature of the teachings of Jesus; taking his teachings seriously is indeed “terrifying”. But were his instructions “unconscionable and forbidden in his day”? Not at all! Such a fraudulent claim is built on the back of a completely erroneous portrayal of Jewish teachings, both in the time of Jesus, and in the centuries prior to his time. Hebrew Scripture, in particular, provides many passages that refute this hyperbolic claim.
On love of enemies, there are proverbs that are relevant: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Prov 25:21); and “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Prov 24:17). That’s love for enemies, surely?
There are injunctions in the Torah that are pertinent. “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free” (Exod 23:4–5); and “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:33–34). Both passages instruct behaviour that exemplifies love in action: one for an enemy, the other for an alien (a foreigner).
There is the story told concerning Elisha, at a time “when the king of Aram was at war with Israel” (2 Kings 6:1). Elisha had asked God to strike the army of Aram blind, and God did so; Elisha then led them into a trap in Samaria, after which they were given back their sight. The story continues: “When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” (2 Kings 6:21–23). Elisha turned enemies into friends through this command to show love.
In relation to loving the poor, Hebrew Scripture is clear: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut 15:7–8).
“Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’” (Deut 15:10–11).
“You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deut 24:14–15).
Especially potent is the song found in the third, and latest, section of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet reports that God says: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa 58:6–8). That is crystal clear about the need to love the poor!
And there is a succinct proverb that informs us: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour him” (Prov 14:31).
As for forgiveness, there is a constant refrain in Hebrew Scripture that God is a God who forgives; “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; this refrain also appears at Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; as well as 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).
Alongside the many instances where God’s judgement is spoken of, there are also many references to the steadfast love and forgiving nature of God. The God of the Old Testament is not just a God of wrath; the Lord God requires justice, and will punish transgressors, but also offers an abundance of gracious, loving forgiveness.
The psalmist affirms that “there is forgiveness with you” (Ps 130:4), that “when deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions” (Ps 65:3). The prophet Hosea declares that God says, “I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (Hos 14:4). The prophet Jeremiah asserts that God promises that in the renewal of the covenant, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34); while the prophet Ezekiel declares that God promises to “establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord … when I forgive you all that you have done” (Ezek 16:62–63). Finally, the prophet Daniel declares that “to the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness” (Dan 9:9).
This divine forgiveness is lived out in the story of human beings in various ways; take Abigail and David, for instance. Abigail asks David, “please forgive the trespass of your servant”; David replies, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition” (1 Sam 25:28, 35). Forgiveness, both divine and human, is clearly not unknown and unpractised in Israel.
My own view is that Jesus was standing firmly and resolutely in the prophetic tradition of Israel; they were the counter-cultural voices of their day, and Jesus adopts and re-speaks their damning words and challenging ethos to the people of his own time. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/
Certainly Jesus is confronting and challenging; but let’s not pile on negatively to his predecessors and to the religion of the Israelite prophets, which nurtured the ground for the development of rabbinic Judaism as well as the Jesus movement and then, over time, grew into the Christian church. We Christians are inheritors of the fullness of Israelite—Jewish traditions, mediated through Jesus, and we should rejoice in the richness of this heritage.
I have blogged before about ensuring that we don’t fall into antisemitic stereotypes when talking about the Pharisees; see