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precept, and to describe that peculiar temper and disposition which the Gospel requires; that patience, gentleness, mildness, moderation, and forbearance under injuries and affronts, which is best calculated to preserve the peace of our own minds, as well as that of the world at large; which tends to soften resentment and turn away wrath; and without which, on one side or the other, provocations must be endless, and enmities eternal.
All therefore, that is here required of us is plainly and simply this, that we should not suffer our resentment of injuries to carry us beyond the bounds of justice, equity, and Christian charity; that we should not (as St. Paul well explains this passage) recompence evil for evil, that is, repay one injury by committing another; that we should not take fire at every slight provocation or trivial offence, nor pursue even the greatest and most flagrant injuries with implacable fury and inextinguishable rancour : that we should make all reasonable allowances for the infirmities of human nature, for the passions, the prejudices, the failings, the misapprehensions of those we have to deal with; and without submitting tamely to oppression or insult, or giving up rights of great and acknowledged importance, should always show a disposition to conciliate and forgive; and rather to recede and give way a little in certain instances, than insist on the utmost satisfaction and reparation that we have perhaps a strict right to demand.
The chapter concludes with another remarkable precept, which may strictly be called a new commandment; for in no moral code is it to be found, till our Lord gave it a place in his.
The precept is this: "Ye have heard it has been said, thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on
Rom. xii. 17.
evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."*
So noble, so sublime, and so benevolent a precept, was never before given to man; and it is one strong proof, among many others, of the originality of our Saviour's character and religion.
The Jews were expressly commanded to love their neighbour; but this injunction was not extended to their enemies, and they therefore thought that this was a tacit permission to hate them; a conclusion which seemed to be much strengthened by their being enjoined to wage eternal war with one of their enemies, the Canaanites, to show them no mercy, but to root them out of the land. In consequence of this, they did entertain strong prejudices and malignant sentiments toward every other nation but their own, and were justly reproached for this by the Roman historian; "apud ipsos misericordia in promptu, adversus omnes alios hostile odium:" that is, towards each other they are compassionate and kind; towards all others they cherish a deadly hatred. But it ought in justice to be observed, that this remark of Tacitus might have been applied, with almost equal aptitude, both to his own countrymen the Romans, and to the Greeks, for they gave to all other nations but themselves the name of barbarians; and having stigmatized them with this opprobrious appellation, they treated them as if they were in reality what they had wantonly thought fit to call them. They treated them with insolence, contempt, and cruelty. They created and carried on unceasing hostilities against them, and never sheathed the sword till they had exterminated or enslaved them.
In private life also, it was thought allowable to pursue those with whom they were at variance with the keenest resentment and most implacable hatred; to take every opportunity of annoying and distressing them, and not to rest till they had felt the severest effects of unrelenting vengeance.
In this situation of the world, and in this general ferment of the malevolent passions, how seasonable, how salutary, how kind, how conciliatory was the command to love, not only our friends, not only our neighbours, not only strangers, but even our enemies! How gracious that injunction, "I say unto you, love your enemies; do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you!" And how touching, how irresistible is the argument used to enforce it: "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust!"
It is remarkable that the philosoper Seneca makes use of the same argument, not exactly for the same purpose, but for a similar one. "If (says he) you would imitate the gods, confer favors even on the ungrateful, for the sun rises on the wicked, and the seas are open even unto pirates:" And again, "the gods show many acts of kindness even to the ungrateful*." It is highly probable that the philosopher took this sentiment from this very passage of St. Matthew; for no such sublime morality is, I believe, to be found in any heathen writer previous to the Christian revela
Seneca flourished and wrote after the Gospels were written, after Christianity had made some progress. Besides this, he was brother to Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, before whose tribunal St. Paul was brought by the Jews at Corinth.† From him he would of course receive much information respecting this new religion, and the principal characters concerned in it; and from the extraordinary things he would hear of it from such authentic sources, his curiosity would naturally be excited to look a little further into it, and to peruse the writings that contained the history and the doctrines of this new school of philosophy. This, and this only, can account for the fine strains of morality
* Sen, de. Benef. lib. 4. c. 26. and c. 28.
Acts xviii. 12.
we sometimes meet with in Seneca, Plutarch, Marcus Antonius, Epictetus, and the other philosophers who wrote after the Christian æra, and the visible superiority of their ethics to those of their predecessors before that period. But to return.
It has been objected to this command of loving our enemies, that it is extravagant and impracticable; that it is impossible for any man to bring himself to entertain any real love for his enemies: and that human nature revolts and recoils against so unreasonable a requisition.
This objection evidently goes upon the supposition that we are to love our enemies in the same manner and degree, and with the same cordiality and ardour of affection, that we do our relations and friends. And if this were required, it might indeed be considered as a harsh injunction. But our Lord was not so severe a task-master as to expect this at our hands. There are different degrees of love as well as of every other human affection; and these degrees are to be duly proportioned to the different objects of our regard. There is one degree due to our relations, another to our benefactors, another to our friends, another to strangers, another to our enemies. There is no need to define the precise shades and limits of each, our own feelings will save us that trouble; and in that only case where our feelings are likely to lead us wrong, this precept of our Lord will direct us right.
And it exacts nothing but what is both reasonable and practicable. It explains what is meant by loving our enemies in the words that immediately follow; "Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you:" that is, do not retaliate upon your enemy; do not return his execrations, his injuries, and his persecutions, with similar treatment; do not turn upon him his own weapons, but endeavour to subdue him with weapons of a celestial' temper, with kindness and com. passion. This is of all others the most effectual way of vanquishing an enraged adversary. The interpreta,
tion here given is amply confirmed by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans, which is an admirable comment on this passage. Dearly beloved, says he, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.Therefore, if thine enemy hunger feed him; if he thirst, give him drink, Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."* This then is the love that we are to show our enemies; not that ardour of affection which we feel towards our friends, but that lower kind of love, which is called Christian charity (for it is the same word in the original) and which we ought to exercise toward every human being, especially in distress. If even our enemy hunger, we are, to feed him; if he thirst, we are to give him drink; and thus shall obtain the noblest of all triumphs, "we shall overcome evil with good." The world if they please may call this meanness of spirit; but it is in fact the truest magnanimity and elevation of soul. It is far more glorious and more difficult to subdue our own resentments, and to act with generosity and kindness to our adversary, than to make him feel the severest effects of our vengeance. It is this noblest act of self-government, this conquest over our strongest passions, which our Saviour here requires. It is what constitutes the highest perfection of our nature and it is this perfection which is meant in the concluding verse of this chapter; Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect ;"† that is, in your conduct towards your enemies approach as near as you are able to that perfection of mercy which your heavenly Father manifests towards his enemies, towards the evil and the unjust, on whom he maketh his sun to rise as well as on the righteous and the just.— This sense of the word perfect is established beyond controversy by the parallel passages in St. Luke; where, instead of the terms made use of by St. Matthew, "Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," the evangelist expressly says, "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful."
* Rom. xii. 19-21.
Matth. v. 48.
Luke vi. 36,