“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? This sounds impossible. Remember one of your favorite teachers, whether a family member or in school, perhaps a coach. Imagine a favorite teacher saying: “Keep growing into more. You can do it.” How does it feel to hear that?
Today’s Gospel is the last in a series from Jesus:[i] You have heard it was said … but I say to you … .” With each one, Jesus invites beyond what has been already learned. You have heard: Don’t murder. But I say beware of your anger and insulting each other. You have heard: Don’t commit adultery. But I say beware of lust. Keep the spirit of the law. You have heard: Hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies.
Like a parent, teacher, coach, or one whom we admire, Jesus says: There’s more than the basic rules you already know. This is the way of adulthood.[ii] Keep on growing into further maturity, into an expansive spirit with integrity and mercy toward everyone, all the time. Scholar Dale Bruner writes the word translated as perfect is not about the height of accomplishment to which we reach up but rather the width of mercy, reaching out to embrace, and Bruner translates it as “perfectly mature.” [iii]
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”[iv] The New English Bible puts Matthew’s line as “be all goodness, as your heavenly Father is all good.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. … Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
[i]If you’ve been worshipping with us with some regularity you may know that we have been using the Rite One liturgy on Fridays during Lent. I love that the liturgy begins with Jesus’ summary of the Law: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. For me, while I know that fulfilling these two commandments is a challenge, there seems to be a graceful, even poetic quality to them that makes me want to strive for their fulfillment.
I sometimes wonder though what it would be like to begin the Eucharist with these words: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Love thine enemies, pray for those who persecute thee. Thou shalt be perfect even as thy heavenly Father is perfect. Is it just me, or does this admonishment have a different ring to it? Love of God with heart, soul, and mind coupled with love of neighbor as self: I desire these things. I’m not sure I can say the same about love of enemies coupled with Godly perfection. It seems unrealistic.
St. Benedict described the monastery as a school of love. So is the Church. We are children following our teacher Jesus as we learn to love. Today we hear again one of the hardest instructions: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Not simply tolerate or have patience. Welcome fully, without restriction. Love unconditionally.
Yet these are people who intend us harm, who hurt us or at the very least get under our skin. We resent, accuse, and fight our enemies, trading hurt for hurt, barricading in bitterness. How in the world can we love them?
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.
Anthony de Mello, the late Jesuit priest and spiritual writer, describes the nature of true love in this way: “Take a look at a rose. Is it possible for the rose to say, ‘I shall offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people?’ Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds its rays from a wicked person who seeks its light? It could only do that by ceasing to be a lamp. And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature – even to the one who seeks to cut it down.” (The Way to Love, p.77)
Deut. 26:16-19 / Ps. 119:1-8 / Mt. 5:43-48
Loving one’s enemies is something that we Christians accept intellectually and take for granted as basic Christian teaching. But when it comes to putting it into practice I think that most of us have difficulty actually doing it, either on the emotional level or on the practical level. Many people have difficulty separating godly love from emotional, sentimental, or roman tic love.