“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus commands. That’s nowhere near as rosy and naïve as the bumper sticker I once came across, in a boutique full of inspirational art and Buddhist tchotckes, that read: “Love your enemies and you won’t have any.”
There once was at time that I, too, believed I could change the world and others by wishing or willing it so. I was fortunate to unlearn that nonsense before I caused too much harm.
Jesus is far more realistic than we give him credit. The only certainty in Jesus’ command is that we will have enemies. There’s no reassurance that our love will transform them, improve our earthly status, or end wars. We are simply told to love and pray for adversaries so that we “…may be children of (our) heavenly Father.”
Even if we interpret the preceding verses (5:38-42) as social historians of the Mediterranean world suggest (i.e. reframing insults and oppression in ways that assert our human dignity), the path of nonresistant love is rarely painless. It is, in point of fact, often lethal. Remember that Jesus is raised in triumph after we tortured and killed him.
But what’s realistic about a command like, “ Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (It’s no wonder many prefer Luke’s rendering (6:36): “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”)
But the Greek teleioi is far richer than the English “perfect.” The Greek word suggests wholeness, completion, holiness. We should be prepared for this by today’s reading from Leviticus: God tells Moses, just before we are instructed to love neighbor as self, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
We can’t wish ourselves into being holy, whole, or perfect, any more than we can wish our enemies into loving us. It’s not a matter of sentimental inspiration, mind over matter, or karma. We become teleioi not because we earn it, but because God is teleios. Jesus’ realism does not rely on power, will or mind. Jesus is the ultimate realist because he is the realist of God’s grace.