We have heard it said. We have heard it said over and over again so that it probably seems like old news. Maybe it’s not even challenging or offensive anymore. But it is. The command to love our neighbor and our enemy is radical, and maybe even downright impossible.
You know you’re in trouble when you’re getting ready to preach on a text and pretty much every commentary you come across basically counsels you to preach on something else. Which is what happened when I started reading about both the Gospel and Old Testament texts. Which I took as a challenge. So: Challenge accepted. Besides, I like a good theological wrestling match and the Old Testament and Gospel passages offer us at least that.
So here’s the question we have to wrestle with – and probably ought to wrestle with a whole lot more than we do: What if Jesus really meant what he said about all this – this loving our enemies and perfection stuff?
We know the answer (even though we often act otherwise). So, we wrestle with the reality that “Jesus isn’t kidding and is dead serious about these commands [about love].” David Lose says this: in this sermon, Jesus outlines his vision of God’s Kingdom and issues a summons to those who desire to be a part of it. Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of the world.” This is not a Gospel of prosperity or safety. “Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”
There are two troubling commands in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and come from the levitical code: the call to love not just neighbor but our enemies, and the call to perfection. And these calls are directly linked. When Jesus said love he’s not commanding sentiment, romance or lust; it is action – the kind of love that has the power to transform and redeem and recreate.
Which informs the impossible command found in the readings from both Leviticus and Matthew: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
This call to perfection is not a call to sinlessness – though, don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty good ideal as well – but when we understand it that way we get distracted and bogged down by rules. Rather, it is a call to the perfect kind of love and inclusion that is the very heart and identity of God.
It is less about action and primarily about identity, about doing. It is about who are we. We are known by what we do – and we are called to love, forgive, and pray. If we are to be called children of God, we do not retaliate, we don’t return evil for evil, we do not turn our backs on the poor and the alien and the downtrodden. And we do not look on them with pity.
Rather, we open our eyes and our arms and our hearts to love fully, to we include the Other in our community to the extent that there is no such thing as “the Other” anymore.
Everything we read today – about holiness, perfection – comes back to this: the love of neighbor, which is integrally wrapped up in loving God with all of who we are.
What Jesus does is not rewrite the Law or negate the Law or any of that. He simply enlarges the definition of neighbor. Actually, he breaks down our definition so there is no difference between neighbor, enemy, alien, family. All are one – we are called to love all persons with dignity and worth and love of God.
When we ask the question of how we live in human community as God intended, Leviticus answers that our ethical behavior is how we demonstrate authentic love of God. We are called to action – again, not to earn anything.
This is not our means of salvation, but the very working out of the free gift of salvation. Because God loves us, because God offers us free and abundant grace, we have abundant life when we love others and offer others the same forgiveness and wholeness.
Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount build on and expand the legal tradition. What he is getting at throughout his sermon is our collective call – the Christian vocation. We often use the idea of vocation so narrowly defined as to be basically the Christian code-word for career.
But listen to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is telling us our vocation as his followers – who and what we are called to be and do: build peace, seek righteousness and justice, choose against injustice…
And so this passage ends with a bit of a summary of this vocation. It’s still seems pretty impossible, doesn’t it? It’s certainly not supposed to sound easy. Because it isn’t easy. And it often seems hard to know how we are to be or what we are to do.
We are called to the work of being holy. Of getting our hands dirty and doing the hard work of loving, forgiving, welcoming, providing, liberating. Frame this with the call to nonviolence and we see that it is anything but a call to submission or victimhood.
Rather, it is a call to work to see that not just ourselves, but our communities, our systems, our world is redeemed into the likeness of God. It is a continual work to live into the presence and likeness of God – and this is the very promise of God in the covenant and in the Gospel – we shall be like God.
Because God loves us. Because we are God’s children.
So. It is not so much perfection, as we tend to think of it, to which we are called – but perfect love – understood when we consider the source of both the law and the Gospel.
Consider the source of these words – Jesus, the very embodiment of God. God who loves us enough to engage in radical relationship as one of us – instructs us in perfection: when we take into account the source of these commands we understand that we have “a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable.” Jesus gives us such seemingly radical ways to love and live, not because he wants us to turn to the despair of impossibility, but “because that is how God loves. If you want to follow this God, fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing.”
Consider the source: We know Jesus. We claim that we have seen him, that he continues to live and move among us. Therefore, we see the possibility breaking through the impossibility: We “know God’s love,” and so we can love our enemies and offer forgiveness. All of this transforms into the realm of the possible because we don’t just read words on a page – we know directly their source.
The injunction in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, and the charge from Jesus to be perfect as God is perfect is, again, not intended to push us to give up because we’re fighting a losing battle.
Rather, both the law and the gospel point to the entire goal of discipleship. We are to imitate God.
The rules are not set up for mere conformity’s sake. Jesus doesn’t want us to be submissive or weak, but we are called – our very vocation as his followers – is to imitate God. And we can do that because we consider the source, we know how God loves and moves and responds because we know Christ. The very goal of our lives as followers of Jesus is to be perfect, which is to say, to imitate God. To love as God loves. To forgive as God forgives. To welcome as God welcomes.
I’d like to take a step back. I would like to pause right here. Remember how Jesus told us we are supposed to love our enemies? I always think (like a lot of things Jesus said) that this is a nice idea, for other people. But when you get practical about it, who could love and forgive their enemies, even if we wanted to?
And we must tell the truth here: part of the problem with this Gospel text is that it has been used, and continues to be used to justify oppression and pacify victims.
We certainly could and ought to wrestle with this text by acknowledging the utter difficulty – even impossibility of loving enemies who inflict real and prodigal harm – abusers, murderers, sexual predators, war-mongers. We could throw the Hitler card here in Jesus’ face and leave feeling pretty frustrated.
And that’s some worthy wrestling, to be sure. It is a hard vocation we are called to, to figure out how to show love to enemies without ourselves becoming victims or doormats or worse. To be clear – I do not believe that Jesus is calling us to be passive victims or doormats or worse.
Another way I’d like to wrestle with this call to love our enemies, is to hold that command up in light of the holiness codes found in the reading from Leviticus. Our culture has created enemies out of difference.
We are hard-wired, it seems, to look for enemies all around us. We fear shadows and we persist in our fear of folks with skin color unlike our own, or language unlike our own. We hold suspicions against those whose income and housing do not look pristine. “The poor” has become a dirty word for us – as though being poor reflects one’s personal and spiritual worth.
If we know anything to be true consistent throughout the biblical story is that if we make enemies out of the poor, the oppressed, the alien, we have made enemies out of God.
One of the principles guiding the lives of the Hebrews was that God dwelt among them. So the holiness codes, the laws were a way of answering the question: If we believe that God dwells in our midst, what difference does that make?
I think we ought to ask ourselves the same question: If we believe that God dwells in our midst, what difference does that make? What matters most are not the things we do to prove ourselves good, but the ways we engage with one another and treat one another.
To what extent do we guard each other’s dignity – and not just the dignity of people we like; that part is easy. How are we at guarding the worth and dignity of people who are downright rotten to us? Or the people we are otherwise told to ignore – the poor, the alien, the broken (in body, mind, and spirit).
If we take seriously the commands in Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount we are confronted with the reality that, “Because every human being bears ‘the likeness of God,’ the failure to love others is equivalent to saying that neither thy nor we have value in the eyes of God.”
This is part of the challenge in what Jesus offers today. Our rules – the games we play – are obliterated. Jesus sets out the rule of perfect love, which is all inclusive – and completely dissolves the distinctions between us vs. them. “‘We’ and ‘they’ are all loved by God.”
Loving other people – loving all people, even our enemies – is about honoring their humanity, believing that God really can transform the other, and then to treat them with the dignity and respect of another created in the image of God.
“Jesus is taking the imago Dei not just seriously, but literally, a truly incarnational theology. … We are, Jesus implicitly argues, God’s heirs, and also God’s flesh and blood, God’s family, God’s descendants and legacy. We have more to live up to than we ever imagined.”
Perhaps this is why we so often prefer to maintain a theology focuses on God’s transcendence – God’s holiness that is so far removed and above and other than us.
It is safer for us that way. In the end if we don’t have such a responsibility, if our DNA weren’t wrapped up in God’s own being – then we could remain all-too-human – clinging to our humanness as an excuse, rather than responding to and embracing the blessing of being God’s children – made flesh and blood in our incarnational theology.
A piece of Jesus’ call to perfection is – much like in the verses prior to this in the Sermon on the Mount – a call to recognize who we already are – we are created in God’s image and we are called children of God. The call to be perfect as God is perfect, then is, at least, “an invitation to self-recognition.”
So, the call to Christian vocation is a call to perfection – but it is not a perfection in the ways that we assume. It isn’t living up to a checklist of do’s and don’t’s perfectly. To be sure, it is about doing, and action, but out of our identity as children of God we move to love others as God loves them – we love all of humanity as God loves them, with no partiality, and with full worthiness.
The call to Christian vocation in Jesus’ words is a clear call to perfection – which is worked out in relationships and communities It embodies the very grace and provision and liberation of God. It is not a call to perfection thinly veiled as a set-up to failure, but a radical call to acknowledge who we are created and gifted to be, and a participation in the redemption and transformation of ourselves and our world into the fully realized Kingdom of God.
Did Jesus really mean what he said? You bet he did. Thank God he did.
 David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher,” 2.18.14: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3076
 Leviticus 19.2
 Jason Byassee, “Theological Perspective,” Matthew 5.38-48, Feasting on the Word: Year A, vol. 1. 382.
 Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus: Interpretation Commentary. Westminster John Knox, 2011. 166.
 William F. Brosend, II, “Theological Perspective,” Matthew 5.38-48, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew. 112.
 Brosend, 114.