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 sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the on good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48).
Matthew 5:48, the sentence that closes the above biblical passage, is brief and riveting. Poised at the center of the Sermon on the Mount, this Gospel exhortation is a critical teaching moment in the life of Jesus and a critical moment of revelation for all his disciples. It is the moment where Jesus sums up his teaching by issuing a clarion call for us to transform ourselves into an image of God’s own holiness, that we may transform the entire world into the kingdom of God.
Asking us to transform ourselves into something that resembles God could seem b.asphemous, both to Jews in Jesus’ days and to Christians in our own time. After all, it might be interpreted to suggest that Jesus is giving us hope that we too might somehow achieve a state of perfection that allows us to have a divine status.
Jesus is simply not claiming this. By telling us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” our Lord is saying we have an opportunity to become fully human by imitating the loving qualities of God. Such a conversion has many implications. It cannot be an individual affair with God. If we are to emulate the type of selfless love that radiates from God, the true hallmark of our conversion will be our ability to conduct ourselves in ways that allow our words and our deeds to show others the love of God.
The word “perfect” as used by Matthew deserves attention. “Perfect” is used just twice in all of the Gospels, both times by Matthew, who places the word again in 19:21, when Jesus explains to the rich young man that to “be perfect,” to find his true “treasure in heaven,” he must give his wealth to the poor and follow the way of Jesus. In both the Sermon on the Mount and the interaction with the rich young man, Jesus uses the word “perfect” to demand a certain type of moral behavior that will reflect our attempt to know God fully and to therefore always seek his will in our lives.
To describe the type of perfection Jesus is trying to convey in both 5:48 and 19:21, Matthew uses the Greek word teleios, an adjective which defines something as being complete, something which is “whole,” “fully grown,” “final.” Teleios may itself be a translation of the Semitic word tamim, which also conveys something which has become “whole” and “complete.”
It is significant that Jesus’ exhortation to “be perfect” comes within the context of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches us the virtues essential to the Christian life: the necessity of prayer, the absence of anxiety over material things, and the incompatibility of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and selfishness with philanthropy. But the Sermon cannot be limited to the status of a “how-to” guide for clean living. Here Jesus is offering us the opportunity to participate in something much greater than our human selves, something more vast than what we can know in the here and now.
This special moment of teaching by Christ is on par with the dramatic revelations of the Old Testament. Jesus, ascending a mountain before he begins to reveal his teaching, imitates Moses, who also ascended a mountain to receive the law revealed from God. Jesus’ words, drawn from the Old Covenant then interpreted more deeply and reborn as the New Covenant, are uttered as a prophetic vision of another world, astonishing those who hear them. Viewed in the eschatological light in which Matthew intended, the Sermon on the Mount becomes then not simply a lecture on morals by a benevolent philosopher-it becomes epiphany straight from the mouth of God.
By describing the type of perfect behavior to which we should.aspire, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of what eternal life will be like in the kingdom of God: a life that is capable only of knowing peace, a life that is free from anxiety and filled with hope, a life that is loving and can only promote good. By illuminating for us the qualities that we should display to one another, Jesus is describing for us the very qualities that God himself displays toward us and all creation. The most remarkable of these qualities-and the one seemingly most beyond human reach-is God’s capacity to pour out his love upon those unworthy of it.
This section regarding the love of one’s enemies is found in what is referred to as the Sermon’s “antitheses,” the six paragraphs in Matthew chapter five that draw explicitly upon some piece of contemporary Jewish Scripture interpretation. The format for each antithesis is the same: Jesus presents a contemporary Jewish interpretation, sometimes pointing to its virtues, then takes the teaching a step further, either interpreting the teaching in a new light or expanding on it in such a way that it demands more than the original letter of the law.
Jesus begins the passage by recalling interpretation of some that it was acceptable to “hate your enemy” (Matt. 5:43). This is not a scriptural commandment but an element of proto-rabbinical tradition that said one should “reject what God has rejected.
“We Jews,” the thinking went, “are the people of God, chosen especially by God to fulfill some special plan. It makes sense that we should keep ourselves apart from those whom God has not chosen.” Heard, then, through the ears of many Jews of Jesus’ day, who had been taught that hating an enemy is a good, even godly, thing, Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” would have been shocking.
The Christians-both Jewish and Gentile-for whom Matthew wrote his account of the Sermon on the Mount would have found Jesus’ commandment to “love your enemies” equally difficult. According to some theories, Matthew wrote in Antioch five decades after Jesus delivered his sermon. If so, he would have been acutely aware of, and likely even addressing, the bitter divide within Judaism between the Pharisees and the increasingly popular Christian movement. Even closer to the heart of the matter would be Matthew’s recognition that Gentiles-those who had not been circumcised and taught to keep the Mosaic Law-often had embraced the Christian faith more readily than had many Jews. Thus, at times there was friction in the Antiochene church between the Old Testament-abiding Jewish minority and a Gentile majority that was bound only by Christian precepts.
In such an environment, tensions caused by religious leaders and cultural influences could mount, sides be taken concerning the place of the Mosaic Law in the Christian life, and enemies be made. To be told that one must reach out in true love to someone from the “other side” would have struck a nerve with many in the Antiochene community.
Still, an exhortation to charity would not have been unusual in the society in which Matthew’s Gospel was written. Before Christianity, and even outside of it, fairly palatable standards of conduct toward others, including one’s enemies, were promoted. The Old Testament, for instance, admonishes us to give aid to one’s enemies in certain circumstances; and the Stoic and Cynic philosophers of Jesus’ day did emphasize that we should all love one another. But extending these aphorisms to the point of actually acting with love to an enemy-and thereby negating our ability to act with hate-is a teaching which seems to have come uniquely from Christ.
Those who first heard the Sermon on the Mount were “astonished” at Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 7:28) and would have considered such a love beyond anything that we, left to our own devices, could ever muster. And this is precisely what Jesus was telling them: Such a love, he was saying, could never come simply from within or be a product of mere humanity. A love of enemies would have to be an imitation of the divine love that God extends to each of us, regardless of whether or not we deserve it (we don’t), want it (not frequently enough), or will ever return it (impossible in like measure). And if under the influence of God’s grace we can exhibit such a love, we will be participating, in advance, in God’s new, recreated world where no hatred or sin will exist: a world like the perfect world he created for us in the first place, only more glorious, which will exist only when his kingdom is finally at hand.
With the blunt admonition that we are to “be perfect” as our “heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus in condenses the larger vision of the Sermon on the Mount, a vision that may be translated as: “You are to build the kingdom of God with love.” We who expect to find ourselves within that kingdom, he is telling us, must not only look forward to it as a future possibility but must believe that the kingdom can, in part, become a current reality and must participate in the building of that reality. Capping his extraordinary teaching that we are to express only love, even to those who may hate us in return, Jesus reminds us that, to achieve a whole, complete, unbreakable union with God, we must imitate God. We must, like Jesus, direct all the energies of our humanity into reflecting the love of the divinity. It is a pure love so overwhelming that it can only become a force for good, a love that will one day overpower the world to usher into its place the eternal kingdom of God.