In the New Testament Greek there are four different verbs for “love.” There’s the verb stergein, the love within a family, a child’s love for his or her parents. There’s the verb eran, which is the love of sexual passion; the erotic “love of lovers.” There’s the verb philein, the kind of love we have for our closest friends and neighbors. Then there’s a fourth verb, agapan, that Jesus uses here. This love, agape love, is different from the rest. Jesus here specifically says that he’s not talking about loving family or friends, those to whom we’re naturally attracted and already love; nor is he coaching us to fall in love with people. He’s using here this very unique agape love in terms of our most difficult relationships: with our enemies. Enemies, which includes people who are literally out to kill us and folks who give us a hard time, who trip us up, who take advantage of us, who don’t have our best interests in mind, people who are – as we say in slang – not helpful to our program. Enemies. And how do we deal with those sorts of folks? With agape love.
Agape is not just a lovely feeling of the heart that surfaces quite naturally. Agape love is a determination of the will that no matter what this person does to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter if they insult or injure or grieve us, we will not let them set the standard. We will not allow any bitterness against them to invade our hearts, but will regard them with a kind of unconquerable benevolence and goodwill. It’s the kind of love Jesus is literally dying to give everyone. That’s the love Jesus is talking about here: how we are to treat our enemies.
If you’re not already skeptical this is possible, Jesus’ last line will confirm the impossibility. Jesus concludes by saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect….” Impossible, we may say. In actuality, we’re rescued by this word “perfect.” In the Greek this is not a command, but rather a promise. In the Greek, this is future tense, not imperative tense. In the end, we will be made perfect, complete, whole, Jesus promises us. And when we are, we shall be able to love even our enemies. And in the meantime – and sometimes it’s a very meantime time – we’re given several promises:
- We’re going to have enemies. (A servant is not greater than the master.)
- We will discover ourselves powerless to love them, to love them in our own power.
- Jesus promises us power, but this conversion is a lifetime’s process. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, reminds us Jesus’ work of perfection is gradual. Father Benson writes, “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” (1)
- Where we find we cannot yet love our enemies, pray that God bless them, even when we cannot. Pray for God’s blessing. Don’t pray for God’s cursing them. (2) Pray for God’s blessing them.
- And finally, Jesus promises us, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, that “he is with us always, even on tough days, even to the end of the age.” (3)
Come, Lord Jesus. (4)
1. Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915) in the Cowley Evangelist, 1918, p. 53.
2. A riff on St. Paul’s writing, “Bless those who persecute you. Bless, do not curse.” (Romans 12:14)
3. Matthew 28:20.
4. St. Paul’s prayer in 1 Corinthians 16:22.
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