Godtalk: Be perfect as God


 Our Father

We live in a world in which violence forms much of the news each day.  Yet we hear Jesus saying ‘you must love the Lord your God with all your hearts and your neighbour as yourself.’  Matt 23, 37-39.  This kind of love includes everyone, even our enemies.  Matt 5.44   Love of God and love of neighbour cannot be separated.

From the Christian viewpoint, those who love others, but do not believe in God, are none the less honouring him. But those who claim to love God while hating others are lying I John 4, 20  Love of God without love of the neighbour is a sham.

Our neighbours may include those we hate or despise, those to whom we are bitterly opposed. We must love them as well.  But that sounds impossible.

There is a saying in the Sermon on the Mount that may seem bewildering. Jesus instructs his hearers:  "You must, therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" Matthew 5. 48.   But how can anyone match the perfection of God? The key lies in the word  - "therefore".

The command to be perfect is not only a command; it is also a conclusion. In the preceding passage our common assumption that we are to love our neighbours and hate our enemies is radically revised. We are told instead that, besides loving our friends, which is unremarkable, we must also love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Why? Because by doing so we will mirror God's activity, "who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust". The image is used to illustrate that God does not discriminate, but treats everyone equally.

All of us, good and bad alike, are loved with the same limitless love, and that is how we are called to love in our turn both friend and foe. That is how we reflect the perfection of God: "You must, therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."   Words which, taken in isolation, may overwhelm us as an ideal beyond our reach can, when seen in context (while they still challenge the imagination) be recognised as real and practicable, shaping our response to violence, while they test us to the limit.

Tested to the limit, we often fail. So some dismiss us as hypocrites, while others regard the very strategy as spineless. But violence can only beget violence and, left to itself, will never end. To find healing and peace we have to change. The love of enemies is not weakness, but something strong, rooted in balance and maturity. Its demands are profound, but it can begin modestly, amid the irritants of daily life.

Peter Knott SJ