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You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48)

If love makes the world go ’round, the way the world defines love would certainly the earth’s orbit painfully slow and halting.

The world teaches that love should be fragmented and specifically targeted. But Jesus says that love should be the basis of our whole approach to life, and especially to its challenges. The world urges us to be about hate more than about love, because there will always be infinitely more people who are strangers to us than the number who both know and love us.

Whether it’s simple indifference to others or outright hatred, lack of love does far more damage to us than to its targets. It’s a potentially deadly virus that spreads easily if not wiped clean by love. It’s a heart disease that leads to anger, bitterness and an urge for vengeance. It drains our emotional energy, shrivels our spirits, wounds our witness, and eventually depletes our capacity to love even those who love us. Unchecked, it leaves us emotionally crippled, quick to take offence and eager to retaliate. It saps us of joy and shuts us out from God’s presence. Instead of hating our enemy, Jesus urges us to realize that hate is our enemy.

And just in case we’re feeling superior to the people we think are beneath us, the Apostle Paul tells us to remember where we came from:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved to all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:3-5a)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. (Col. 1:21)

For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son . . . (Rom 5:10)

If God had treated us the way we tend to treat strangers or those who oppose us, we would still be God’s enemies. He had mercy on us, and we are to follow His lead.

But “be perfect”? Be perfect like God is perfect? Follow all the rules all the time?

It helps to understand that the word translated “perfect” here implies reaching complete maturity. No one but Jesus could ever be sinless here on earth, and He’s not asking us for something impossible. What Jesus is pointing out is that to love God and others is to live in complete spiritual maturity. Love is the oil that keeps our lives operating as they were created to. When applied to everyone, it really does make the world go around.

We’re called to love, even if that love is thrown back in our faces. We’re called to love because God first loved us. We’re called to love because love builds up, and hate tears down. We’re called to love because it’s the only response that makes a positive difference, whether or not we ever know what that is.

Remember “Vicky,” my enemy turned friend? We both got a huge positive out of loving instead of hating. But there’s a little more to the story. Years later, I discovered that Vicky’s mother was physically abusive to her children. I realized then the root of her earlier behavior. It also made me think about how much she had needed kindness, and how little it took for me to show it. I didn’t know her background or her need, but God did.

In the same way, the root of the often inexplicable behavior of others is known to God. Jesus looked past my behavior, my mistakes, and died for me. Am I ready to extend the same kind of love to others?

To do that, would I have to be perfect? Be like God? Follow all the rules all the time? Never make a mistake?

Jesus is telling us that it’s not about personal perfection or rigorous rules. It’s about being in relationship with God, a relationship that teaches us how to love Him, others, and even ourselves. As we learn and grow in that love, we can become completely mature, and that’s as close to perfect as human beings can get.