Notes on Prayer: Matthew 5:44

Last Monday, we examined references to prayer in the Synoptic Tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. Now, we will be looking at those passages and references that are unique to the Gospels and Matthew and Luke; today we focus on the Gospel of Matthew.

Actually, in Matthew there are relatively few teachings or traditions of Jesus regarding prayer beyond the Markan/Synoptic references. Indeed, the relevant passages are limited to the collection of teaching known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, and which, to some extent, has parallels in Luke (so-called “Q” material). We have already examined the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13ff; par Lk 11:2-4) in considerable detail. Within this context, there are two other passages which must be studied: (1) the saying in 5:44, and (2) the teaching in 6:5-8 which directly precedes the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 5:44

“But I say to you, ‘You must love your enemies and speak out toward (God) over the (one)s pursuing you’.”

This saying is part of the Antitheses section of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-47)—in particular, the final (6th) Antithesis, on loving one’s enemies (vv. 43-47). Here, I reprise the discussion from my earlier series on “Jesus and the Law”:

On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

Customary saying:

    • “you shall love your neighbor [lit. the one near] and (you shall) hate your enemy [lit. the one hostile]”

Jesus’ saying:

    • “love your enemies and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the ones pursuing [i.e. persecuting] you”

Relation to the Law:

The saying is extracted from Leviticus 19:18 [LXX], a verse frequently cited in the New Testament (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:9, cf. below); however here the phrase “as yourself” (w($ seauto/n) is not included as part of the citation, presumably to better fit the second part of the saying. The second half of the saying does not come the Old Testament Scripture at all, but should be regarded as a customary and natural (logical) extension—if one should love one’s friends and neighbors, the opposite would seem to follow: that we should hate our enemies. For the principle expressed in ethical-philosophical terms, see e.g., the Delphic aphorism (“to friends be of good mind [i.e. be kind], with enemies keep [them] away [i.e. defend against, ward off]”) and the famous maxim in Xenophon Mem. 2.6.35 etc. (“a man is virtuous [on the one hand] in prevailing [over] friends in doing good, and [on the other] [over] enemies in [doing] ill”).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom, commanding instead to love one’s enemies and to pray to God on their behalf. This relates both to personal enemies and to those who persecute [lit. pursue] Jesus’ followers (cf. in the Beatitudes, vv. 10-12). Of all Jesus’ statements in the Antitheses, this represents the most distinctive Christian teaching, and the one which is perhaps most difficult to follow. As in most of other Antitheses (see above), Jesus extends the Torah command and gives it a deeper meaning—in addition to loving one’s friends and relatives, one must also love one’s enemies.


As the basis for this command, Jesus cites as an example (verse 45) God the Father himself who:

    • makes the sun to rise upon the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people alike
    • sends the rain upon the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ people alike

In some ways this is a curious example, drawing from simple observance of natural phenomena, apart from any ethical or religious considerations—for certainly, we see many instances in Scripture where God brings evil and judgment against wicked/unjust people. However, the emphasis is here on the more fundamental nature of God as Creator—giver and preserver of life.

Verses 46-47 provide a clearer application of Jesus’ teaching, and is parallel to the statement in verse 20. The so-called “love command”, with its extension even to one’s enemies, proved to have immense influence in subsequent Christian teaching, even if the force of it was sometimes softened—cf. Rom 12:19-21 (citing Prov 25:21-22). In Galatians 5:14 Paul refers to the love-command (as represented by Lev 19:18) as “all the Law fulfilled in one word”. There are various forms of Jesus’ saying in verse 44 preserved elsewhere in early Christian writings, which may reflect independent transmission: Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14; Didache 1:3; 2 Clement 13:4; Justin Martyr First Apology 15.9; Athenagoras’ Plea for Christians 11.1; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 3:14; cf. also 1 Corinthians 4:12; Justin Dialogue 35:8; 85:7; 96:3; Clementine Homilies 12:32.

Ultimately the purpose (and result) of following Jesus’ teaching is stated in verse 45a:

“how that [i.e. so that] you may come to be sons [i.e. children] of your Father in the heavens”

This demonstrates a clear connection with the language and imagery of the Beatitudes (esp. v. 9); by following God’s own example (in Christ), we come to be like him—the same idea which concludes the Antitheses in verse 48.

The saying in verse 44 (par Luke 6:28)

With the context of the Antitheses in mind, let us now consider the specific saying in verse 44. It will be helpful to compare the Matthean and Lukan versions, since they presumably stem from the same basic tradition, though they occur in rather different contexts in the respective narratives:

Matt 5:44:
“But I say to you,
{line 1} ‘You must love your enemies
{line 2} and speak out toward (God) over the (one)s pursuing you’.”

Lk 6:27-28:
“But to you the (one)s hearing (me) I say,
{line 1} ‘You must love your enemies
{line 2} (and) do well to(ward) the (one)s hating you;
{line 3} you must give a good account [i.e. speak well] of the (one)s wishing down (evil) on you,
{line 4} (and) speak out toward (God) about the (one)s throwing insults upon you’.”

I have broken the saying into separate lines in order to indicate the poetic character of Jesus’ saying. According to the style and conventions of traditional Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) poetry, the saying follows the pattern of parallel couplets (bicola) whereby the second line (colon) restates and builds on the first. The Lukan version is made up of two bicola, while the Matthean has just a single bicolon. In both versions, the main verb in each line is an imperative (“you must…!”), while the descriptive modifier for the ‘opponents’ in line(s) 2-4 is a present participle, perhaps suggesting continuous/repeated action. If both versions, in fact, stem from a common tradition (i.e. historical saying by Jesus), then it is likely that the Matthean version is an abridgement (and/or simplification) of a more extensive saying.

In each version, the command in the first line is identical: “(you must) love your enemies” (a)gapa=te tou\$ e)xqrou\$ u(mw=n) [so also at Lk 6:35]. The difference is found in the line involving prayer:

and (you must) speak out toward (God) over the (one)s pursuing you
kai\ proseu/xesqe u(pe\r tw=n diwko/ntwn u(ma=$
kai proseuchesthe hyper tœn diœkontœn hymas

(and you must) speak out toward (God) about the (one)s throwing insults upon you
proseu/xesqe peri\ tw=n e)pereazo/ntwn u(ma=$
proseuchesthe peri tœn epereazontœn hymas

The sayings are essentially identical in form, differing only in terms of the specific preposition (u(pe/r vs. peri/) and descriptive verb (diw/kw vs. e)perea/zw) used. The variation in preposition could merely reflect a stylistic difference in Greek; the choice of verb, however, is more substantive. The Matthean verb is diw/kw, “pursue [after]”, often in a hostile sense (i.e. “persecute”), directed specifically at Jesus’ followers; as such, the verb is used three times earlier in the Beatitudes (vv. 10-12; cf. also 10:23). The Lukan verb (e)perea/zw) is much more rare, occurring just once elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Pet 3:16); it means “(throw) insults/abuse upon”, sometimes in the more outright hostile sense of “threaten, be abusive (toward)”.

How are we to explain the difference between the two versions? Given the pointed use of the verb diw/kw elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, it seems likely that the Matthean version may be an (interpretive) abridgment of an original saying preserved more completely in Luke. Certainly we could fairly say that the Lukan lines 2-4 are effectively combined and summarized in the Matthean line 2, with the emphasis being more directly on mistreatment toward people because they are followers of Jesus. On the other hand, the use of diw/kw could also reflect Jesus’ own emphasis (as speaker) in the context of the Sermon; this would certainly represent the more traditional-conservative explanation. At the same time, some commentators suggest that Luke has expanded the saying, and that Matthew’s more concise version more accurately preserves the original; perhaps the general parallel in Rom 12:14, using the same verb diw/kw, might be seen to confirm this. Either way, the main point is clear enough, in both versions: that Jesus’ disciples are to speak out toward God (i.e. pray) on behalf of those who are mistreating and abusing them. This remains one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of Jesus’ teaching for believers—and for us today—to follow faithfully.

The other principal passage on prayer in Matthew (6:5-8) will be explored in the next study.

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