Perfect love—without conditions.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 October

Matthew 5.43-48, Luke 6.27-36.

Sometimes I joke the two commands Jesus said were most important Mk 12.29-31 —love God Dt 6.5 and love your neighbor Lv 19.18 —are respectively the easiest and hardest commands. Really easy to love God. But the neighbors are such a pain.

Some respond with a laugh. Others disagree: They struggle to love God, but people are relatively easy for them. ’Cause people are visible and God is not.

And, they figure, the neighbors are easy to love. Of course by “neighbor” they mean “people who are friendly,” kinda like in Jesus’s story of the kind Samaritan. Lk 10.29-37 Kind people are easy to love. Unkind people not so much. And yeah, it’s not hard to love people who are always nice to you, but I find when you really know and spend time with people, they’re not always gonna be nice. Gotta give ’em credit for trying, but everybody slips up. I sure do. That’s why we Christians gotta be gracious.

Since God obligated the Hebrews to love their neighbors, a lot of ’em actually figured that’s as far as they needed to go in loving people. Kinda like that guy who provoked Jesus to tell the kind Samaritan story: He wanted to justify which neighbors to love. Don’t we all? But in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus objected to this sort of categorizing. God loves everybody, and if you’re following him, if you’re one of his kids, go and do likewise.

And Jesus didn’t pussyfoot around. He jumped right to the unlovable folks. Not icky, dirty, or smelly people, whom superficial Christians struggle to love, but can with a little effort (and especially after we wash ’em). Not sinners, whom self-righteous Christians likewise struggle to love, but sometimes can (again, after they straighten up a bit). Nope, Jesus went for the people who are just plain being hostile and hateful towards us. Persecutors. Mistreaters. Cursers.

Matthew 5.43-44 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”
Luke 6.27-31 KWL
27 “But I tell you listeners: Love your enemies. Do good to your haters.
28 Bless your cursers. Pray for your mistreaters.
29 To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

Yeah, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus already brought up the people who might punch you in the jaw, or try to sue your clothes off. Mt 5.39-40 That was to emphasize grace over karma. In this passage, it’s unconditional love. He orders us to ἀγαπᾶτε/aghapáte, “charitably love,” not just people who love us back, not just people who reciprocate, but everyone. Including people who never, ever will reciprocate.

You know, love ’em like our Father loves ’em.

Matthew 5.45 KWL
“Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.”

Theologians call this prevenient grace—the grace God grants us before we even know he’s there, before we choose to follow him—and even for those who choose to not follow him. Sunlight for all. Rain for all. Life and health and food and water for all. Atonement for all. Salvation offered to all. Yes, God totally plays favorites, like his chosen Hebrews and Christians; but if anybody else wants to become one of his favorites, he’s not shutting them out. Jn 6.37 Neither should we.

Why do you think reciprocity merits a reward?

So you love your neighbors. Well good; you perform the bare minimum expectation for a decent human. (Loads of us don’t, y’notice.) But if you expect loving your neighbors earns you any special consideration from God, Jesus points out it really doesn’t. Any heathen can love their neighbors. Most do.

Matthew 5.46-47 KWL
46 “When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?
Don’t taxmen also do so themselves?
47 When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?
Don’t the foreigners also do so themselves?”
Luke 6.32-34 KWL
32 “If you love your lovers, how’s this an act of grace from you?—sinners love their lovers.
33 When you benefact your benefactors, how’s this grace from you?—sinners do so themselves.
34 When you lend from one from whom you hope to receive back, how’s this grace from you?
Sinners lend to sinners so they can receive an equal payback.”

In Luke 6.34, Jesus nails the usual motivation for being good to your neighbors: “Sinners lend to sinners so they can receive an equal payback.” And sometimes a little interest. But it’s ultimately about reciprocity. You do for them; they’re now obligated to do for you. (Although don’t overdo it, or they’ll resent you, because they’re now obligated to do more for you, and don’t really wanna.)

But as Jesus says three times in Luke, “How’s this [an act of] grace from you?” Or in Matthew, “Why should you be rewarded? What did you do that was so great?” Reciprocity isn’t going above and beyond. It’s going equally as far. They bought you a $15 book for Christmas; you bought them a $15 iTunes card. They bought you a $50 waffle maker for Christmas; you bought them a $50 iTunes card. They bought you a $50,000 car for Christmas; you promptly said, “No, no, I can’t possibly—it’s too much” because there’s no way you’re gonna buy a $50,000 iTunes card. (You and your iTunes cards.) Or you may not wanna spend $50 grand on them—and you sure don’t wanna feel you owe them anything.

That’s the thing about reciprocity: It’s inherently selfish. “You went this far; I will meet you only equally far.” Or “I went this far; I expect you to meet me equally far.” It’s about doing no more for others than we feel we’re obligated—or obligating others so we can get something out of them. It’s not love. It regularly passes for it, though.

But Jesus doesn’t count it as love. And if we expect a pat on the head from the Father for our acts of reciprocity… Jesus says big deal. Taxmen do that. Foreigners do that. Pagans do that. Sinners do that. God’s kids are meant to act like he does: Grace to everybody. Even people who can’t pay you back. Even people who have no intention of paying you back.

Be perfect?

Jesus’s last sentence tends to be translated like so:

Matthew 5.48 KJV
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

As a result, it’s taken out of context all the time. I admit, I used to do it quite a lot myself. I’d be teaching the kids about sanctification—about how Jesus doesn’t want us to slack on God’s commands, just because grace means he forgives all. Don’t practice cheap grace. And as one of my proof-texts I’d use Matthew 5.48, ’cause Jesus did say “be perfect.” Which I’d claim meant “Don’t sin, like your heavenly Father doesn’t sin.”

Nope, not at all what Jesus meant. But plenty of Christians still interpret it that way.

Now if you wanna teach Christians we shoudn’t sin, there’s no shortage of verses which back up the idea. God is totally anti-sin. Read the Prophets sometime. The LORD spends most of the books griping about how his people don’t know him, and regularly offend him. Jesus himself told people to go sin no more. Jn 5.14 So did his apostles. 1Jn 2.1 But this verse isn’t that.

Its context—if you’ve been reading—is about loving your neighbors and enemies the same. Context changes the definition of τέλειοι/téleie, “whole,” the word the KJV and subsequent bible translations render “perfect.”

The question we oughta be asking is perfect how? There’s more than one kind of perfection. There’s sinlessness of course—but we already established Jesus isn’t speaking about sinlessness. There’s precision, like getting a perfect gymnastics score, or getting 100 percent on a test, or hitting the center of an archery target. For that matter there are forms of perfection which aren’t absolute, like “She speaks perfect Arabic,” or “The car’s in perfect condition—and only has 5,000 miles on it.”

In context, what’s Jesus expect of his followers? That we love neighbors and enemies alike. We don’t love some and not others. We don’t require people to earn our affection, compassion, sympathy, generosity, forgiveness, or grace. (Earned grace is an oxymoron anyway.) We apply the Spirit’s fruit to all people, comprehensively, without prejudice. Perfectly.

Like the Father does.

Matthew 5.48 KWL
“Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.”
Luke 6.35-36 KWL
35 “In contrast: Love your enemies. Do good. Lend, never expecting payback.
Your reward will be great, and you’ll be the Most High’s children:
He’s kind to the ungrateful and evil.
36 Be compassionate like your Father is compassionate.”

It’s why I went with the word egalitarian to translate the idea. Perfectly equal. Our Father treats the ungrateful and evil with kindness, Lk 6.35 despite how they treat him. We’re to be just as compassionate.

Nope, it’s not as pagans do. Notice what happens whenever pagans try to raise money for a cause or charity. They only make an effort for the sympathetic needy people: Hungry children with big sad eyes. A weeping family who’s holding in their emotions as they optimistically say of their tornado-strewn house, “Oh, we’ll rebuild.” A struggling homeless woman who’s been cleaned up a little so she doesn’t look that dirty, that crazy—and God forbid she snap when they’re trying to film the video. Our needy have to be worthy needy. Not just any ol’ needy.

And never self-centered, greedy, or pessimistic. Never “What’ve you got? Give me some,” and once they’ve got theirs, off they run.

But I’ve worked with charities half my life, and that’s more than half the people I encounter. Yeah, there are grateful people among them, but they’re a minority. Sometimes a very small minority. But if we ever foolishly showed donors the typical people we’re helping out—needy people who lack the common decency to be polite to the folks who’re trying to help—a lot of those donors’ knee-jerk reactions will be reciprocity. “That’s how they behave? Those people are ingrates. Look what we’re doing for them, and look how they take us for granted. To hell with them. I’m giving my money to grateful people.” And lest you think I’m only talking about pagans, I’m not. More donors are Christian than not. And more Christians act in reciprocity rather than grace.

’Cause it’s so easy to be gracious and loving to grateful, appreciative people. Not so much to jerks. Yet Jesus insists we love jerks too. Same as our heavenly Father. Like it or not, they count as our neighbors.

Like I said, the hardest of the top two commands. Gotta love ’em anyway.