(Begin by reading the Gospel. Better yet, ask someone to read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, teaching the disciples who gather to listen. Jesus gives them a glimpse into the heart of God; he shows them how to love as God loves. He gives them "maxims"—ways to live so as to build the Kingdom here on earth. Jesus gives a whole bunch of maxims, and then, in the last line of the Gospel, he says,
Umm...perfect? Is this even possible?
First of all, we can think about what Jesus means by "perfect."
Does he mean we all have to get perfect on every test at school or else we are not building the Kingdom?
Of course not.
Does he mean we can never make mistakes?
We doubt it.
Then what does he mean?
The Greek word that St. Matthew records here is teleios, which means, "having reached its end, complete, perfect." Teleios has the sense of fullness, of being all that one can be. So what is God's being completely full of? We know, of course, that God is completely full of goodness and love.
Could Jesus mean, then, love the way God loves?
When we look closely at the Gospel reading, we see that the word love appears four times. We are probably on the right track then.
So how does God love?
he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
God gives the sun and rain to all. We do not have to earn the gift of sunshine. We do not have to be good for rain to water our land. God just loves, no matter what.
God loves so perfectly, that God is love itself.
So when Jesus says to be perfect as God is perfect—to love as God loves—how do we begin?
When we are hurt or angry, it is easy to feel that our enemies do not deserve to be loved. People who are unkind to us do not deserve good things. People who have hurt our feelings do not deserve our kindness.
And this is true. They do not deserve it.
But Jesus reminds us that the love of God is not earned. We do not get the sunshine and the rain because we deserve it, but because God loves us, no matter what.
So, to love as God loves, we have to love our enemies. This does not mean that we have to hug and kiss them, of course. It does not even mean that we have to like them. (Jesus says nothing about liking enemies.) So what does loving an enemy look like?
It might mean simply holding the door open for them. It could mean offering a complement when they have done something well. It definitely means not causing or even wishing bad things to happen to them.
If we act this way, how would our enemies feel? Might it cause a change in them? Even if it does not, we have acted as God acts, loved as God loves, and we place ourselves in right-relationship with God.
But seriously, is it really possible to love perfectly? What can we do when our enemies persist in tormenting us, or we cannot get rid of the desire to hurt them back?
pray for those who persecute you
What does prayer do for our enemies? What does it do for us? What difference does it make if we pray for them?
These are questions people have asked for hundreds of years. Prayer changes us, little by little. The more we pray, the more our desires come closer to what God wants. God prunes us—we, the branches of God's True Vine—making us grow ever more true, ever closer to the way God means us to be.
And so we build the Kingdom of God.
And so God's will is done.
Some people worry that Jesus' maxim, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," is too much of a burden on us. They say we should not share it with children because no one is perfect. But that concern overlooks an important point. We are not branches on separate plants. We are all branches of Jesus, the True Vine. And throughout the whole vine flows the Holy Spirit. So when one branch is having a hard time loving enemies, another branch is praying for those who persecute us. When one branch loves abundantly, it helps another branch who is finding it difficult to love. And the whole vine flourishes, full of the life and love of God.
As a community, we can live the maxims perfectly. As a community of love, we can become perfect as God is perfect. We can build the Kingdom in our time.