Few passages of the New Testament have more of the essence of the Christian ethic in them than this one. here is the characteristic ethic of the Christian life, and the conduct which should distinguish the Christian from others. The last two antitheses offered in the Sermon on the Mount deal with love of enemies. We are to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. But in saying this Jesus pushes against what we imagined perfection to be when he upsets the social order and religious customs. He touches those he shouldn’t, heals when he’s not supposed to. Jesus, in many ways, did not live up to expectations, but in his imperfect life and violent death he shows us a better meaning of perfection.
So, then Jesus reads the commandment against murder, he sees beyond the rule and finds encouragement for people to work through their conflict in ways that respect each other’s life. Anger is, for Jesus (Mt. 5:22) and the author of Leviticus (19:17), an emotion that misguides us and causes us to act out violently instead of constructively. When Jesus reads Leviticus, he interprets God’s commandments to love as being all-inclusive.
God instructs that we should live in a different way than the world expects, God insists that someday we shall. We shall not have hate in our hearts or take vengeance and bear grudges (Lev. 19:17-18). We shall live together in perfect unity—this is God’s promise for our future.
The holiness codes of Leviticus are not about setting God’s people up on a pedestal, out of reach of everyone else. Rather, God calls on her children to be set apart in their recognition that the world’s habit of turning people into commodities is no way to operate.
It can be tempting, even for the most well-adjusted among us, to compete with others to enhance our sense of self-worth. In sensing a lack of self-worth, we might try to improve ourselves, striving for a misguided notion of perfection. In doing so, we separate ourselves from one another in some not-so-healthy ways.
These divisions lead to exclusion, to intolerance, and to the anger God in Jesus Christ calls us to replace with compassion. God calls us back together. God calls us to live in our diversity, seeking unity under the umbrella truth that each one of us is a beloved child of God.
As Jesus toured around from town to town, he embodied God’s call to come together. He reminded the people that holiness is not about achieving a standard of perfection but about all kinds of people embracing a perfect, unified love.
The meek, the hungry, the poor and oppressed—Jesus calls them “blessed.” He even calls on them to love their enemies. He practices what he preaches, and because Jesus is an effective teacher and the incarnate revelation of God, people still respond as only people do when they recognize Truth.
Jesus helps us realize that God’s kingdom is not an exclusive perfect people club with a privacy gate and a bouncer at the door; the kingdom of God is what we live when we choose to see each other as beloved children of God instead of as commodities to be bought, sold, judged, and discarded. Living in God’s kingdom is like awakening from what Thomas Merton called a “dream of separateness,” which is much more nightmare than dream.
We follow Jesus not only because he appeared to be an exceptional human, but because of his truly divine ability to birth the kingdom of God in every given moment. And we can participate in this kingdom, here and now. Matthew emphasizes that love of God and love of neighbour are the fundamental commands on which all else depend. Because God’s love is unconditional, we are to strive to love as God does, though, of course, it is challenging. Is it even possible?
The key is in the final verse. We are to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. Matthew uses the Greek word telos, which is probably better translated here as “complete.” A person who has reached their full-grown stature is teleios in contradistinction to a half-grown child. A student who has reached a mature knowledge of his subject is teleios as opposed to a learner who is just beginning, and who as yet has no grasp of things. To put it in another way, a thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, and designed, and made.
. We are to be perfect as in striving to reach the completeness we are called to in the Kingdom of Heaven. Attempting to love our enemies is part of striving for that completeness.