"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you only greet your brothers what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same? Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Most of this lesson is easy enough to follow, but the last sentence has always seemed a little out of kilter to me, because if the point is that we cannot be perfect, why are the disciples being told to do just that?
How can we be perfect like God?
First, a little bit of background might help. Matthew, Mark and Luke make up what are called the synoptic Gospels. We see the word "optic" in "synoptic" which means "view" and "syn" is familiar to us in the word " synonym." "Syn" means similar. So the three synoptic Gospels tell the story of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus from similar viewpoints. Not all of the stories are in each, but many are, and the key events weave through each of them. Each was written for a different audience to carry the Gospel message. Matthew was written for the Jewish people. Therefore the law and tradition of the temple has a central focus.
With this in mind, it makes sense to hear Jesus relating to his disciples and the others listening, in the context of Mosaic law, talking about the law and the prophets, anger, adultery, divorce, judgment, retaliation, and then, as we see in this text, our treatment and response to enemies and those who persecute us. In each of these statements, Jesus begins with "You may have heard it said.."before clarifying the true intent of Old Testament law, rather than the legalistic approaches that had developed among the Jewish people.
It was thought that a slavish devotion to all of the law, practices and customs would make one pure, holy..able to achieve perfection. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a ruler, a Lord, and a judge. And there are great tales of smiting the enemy. "Loving your neighbor" would include coming to their aid in battle, not coveting what they had, or violating one of the "big" commandments like adultery, murder or theft. But if someone was an "enemy" none of these rules appeared to apply. Kind of a free license to behave badly, or even sin in the name of what is right. It is in the New Testament that God becomes more of a Father figure than just a far away judge.
This is when Jesus alters the landscape. In the verses just before this, he has refuted the notion of " an eye for an eye" and expresses that nonconfrontational behavior is the answer. So what follows next addresses what we feel in our hearts. The nonphysical behavior. It is not enough not to strike back, we are called to not harbor hatred. And there's more, we are to pray for the very people who inflict pain, hatred and harm. Making my enemy really just another "Neighbor." Love even these. Well, that's asking just a little too much isn't it? This is what Jesus means when he says we should be perfect as God our Father is perfect, Not perfect in devotion to every detail of the litany of laws and expectations. I know that if I were a Jewish male of the day, I could never be that detail oriented, every action and process prescribed in a certain order; my faith is not usually built on that kind of detail. But Jesus is talking about perfection of the spirit.
Jesus was calling out the Pharisees for the various displays of holiness, their sanctimonious show of ashes and sackcloth, praying, fasting when people were sure to see. What I hear is, "You Pharisees who pride yourselves on dotting all of your "I's" and crossing your "t's. False righteousness. You want to demonstrate how perfect you are? Here's a real test." Loving your neighbor isn't just about being nice to the beautiful or worthy people; it's about being nice to people who make your skin crawl, the people who cheat you, who you won't talk to because they are beneath you, who beat you up and take your wallet, the person who spread a rumor about you at work.. the list goes on. Love these.
It's that hard to be perfect.
And Jesus is challenging the Pharisees and others to make the inside match the outside, not just some of the time, but all of the time. To walk the walk, not just talk the talk. For those who think that appearing "holy" earns them the reward of the heavenly kingdom, Jesus says, what reward is there in doing what you would do anyway? And to drive home the point he mentions lowlifes like the tax collectors and Gentiles- unholy people for sure. How is the Pharisee any more holy or worthy if he does nothing any more than these others? Because in the mind of the Pharisee, being holy is all about maintaining a class structure of those who are worthy and those who are not.
It's not easy to love enemies. It may feel impossible. In the Psalm reading for the day, the psalmist has been betrayed by a person with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war, appealing to God to cast the enemy into the lowest pit, and shorten their lives. Recently a couple of people said some really hateful and untrue things about me. And when I would see them, they were just so sweet and kind, and then stabbing me in the back as soon as I was gone. Insidious comments that were hard to even respond to. Killing me on the inside. It took a long to get to forgiveness.
But Jesus is also telling a person who lost someone on September 11th in the terrorist attacks not to hate the person who obliterated your life as you knew it. We really want the story to end like when Esther has saved the Jews and Haman is put to death and his house given to Esther. Retribution feels good. It feels like we had the last word, vengeance is ours. But Jesus would know what it meant to live his lesson out. To not fight back, and even with his last breath to pray for those who put him to death.
And these verses say something else. God makes the sun rise on good and evil, and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. It is God's world. God is in control. On his timetable. He even has been known to change an "enemy" to a "brother" in the life of Saul who becomes Paul.
So what does this say for us here and now? Well, certainly, we should strive to model what Jesus says, and ultimately demonstrated upon the cross. And we should avoid our owon self-righteousness and litmus tests about who deserves forgiveness. I try to imagine the face of someone who feels like an enemy and picture myself telling this person by name that I forgive them. Hard. To tell them by name that I love them? Even harder. But until I can get to this point, I know I need to pray for God to help me.
But I think we are also being asked to rethink who is our enemy in our daily walk, and to see everyone as a neighbor. To pray for God to give us the strength to become more like Him. Maybe if we tried to see Christ in our "enemy" we could take a step closer. And maybe if we spent a little less time engaging in the destructive patterns we can all fall into that tear each other down, that make us someone else's enemy, we would take another step closer. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we are encouraged not to let anger fester. If you believe someone has wronged you go to them and try to set it right. Take someone with you if you must, but pray for your situation and go work it out.
That's hard too. As painful as it is to be angry, it sure seems easier than the heavy lifting of making something right, maybe acknowledging our own wrong, having to apologize, or making the effort only to have the other person push us away. Not easy to sign up for that experience. Martin Luther in the Third Article of the Small Catechism states,
"I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him." But God sends the Holy Spirit to enlighten us, make us holy, keep us true in the faith. And to forgive all sins. Ours and those of others. It is through the work of the Spirit that we can strive to be more like Christ.
One way to tell people are related is that they look alike or have a common mannerism. When Jesus says that if we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we may be children of the Father, it seems to infer that by acting in keeping with His direction we will look more like His children. People will know whose we are. And that the doing says whose we are, rather than doing things for appearance to define for others who we are.
While the doing says whose we are, we cannot be who we are called to be if it is just a show. No one can do that without real change in our hearts. That change will not happen instantaneously, but think about a world where we all really tried. My daughters listen to a group called Nickelback and one of their recent songs contains these words:
If everyone cared, and nobody cried; If everyone loved and nobody lied; If everyone shared and swallowed their pride, then we'd see the day when nobody died.
Sounds like a pretty good world-sounds like God's world will be someday. And so He calls us forth, offering grace and forgiveness, refreshes us with the Meal, and then sends us out to try anew. But even when we fail, the sun will still rise on us, because Jesus'death and resurrection has already assured our reward, and God who is our Father loves us still.