Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

I stand by what I said a couple of weeks ago: it’s a miracle Matthew stayed to write down the Sermon on the Mount. The whole thing is profoundly hard to hear, and yet we sense divine wisdom in it. We sense that there’s something here to aspire to (and there is), but we aspire to what? It’s insanity to take this stuff seriously. This is not how life is. “Don’t fight against people who do wrong, give to all who ask from you, love your enemies?” These are rules for getting taken advantage of, aren’t they?

I know these rules. I’m close enough to high school to remember drowning in moral correctness while others flexed their muscles, and the pressure to be tough doesn’t go away with distance from high school. It comes up in used car negotiations, debates about immigration, questions about church use policies, and worries about who lives where in our town. I feel it when people ask for money and I’m reluctant to help them. I’m professionally nice, and I still worry about being taken advantage of.

But there’s the command: turn the other cheek, give to anyone, love your enemies. It’s the same story in our Old Testament reading: leave grain for the poor and foreigners; don’t take advantage of people; tell the truth. It’s moral, but the world doesn’t work that way. Follow these rules and someone will take the chance to walk all over you. It’s lofty language: “be holy and perfect as God your Father is perfect” – but look at how that turned out for the one we say was that perfectly holy. Is Jesus really insisting that we live out his death wish? Doesn’t he know that we’re inherently unable to be perfectly holy like him?

Well, yes, but ‘insist’ might be the wrong word. Jesus may not be giving a command, exactly. And yes, Jesus knows we inherently recoil from the demand of love. But what if he’s not making demands? Could this be a promise? These may not be rules to follow, so much as possibilities opened up by God’s love. He’s talking about a world outside the normal rules, where generosity isn’t foolish, where mercy doesn’t mean weakness.

Jesus and Moses talk about a world defined by God’s love, where we’re truly able to live as if we were God, holy and perfect as God is. “Be perfect.” It’s not an infinitely high bar to clear. Rather, it’s a boundless promise of a perfectly whole humanity. It’s the possibility of being who God made us to be. God made us to be generous, merciful, true, and faithful, because God made us to be like God. God always meant to live in human life. That’s what Jesus does. He lives as God: boldly when we falter, abundantly when we hold back, and joyously when we’re afraid. Jesus already lives in God’s world, the realm where perfect love is real. He invites us to walk into that world too.

Here’s something that reality looks like. Julio Diaz is a New York social worker. He was on his way to his favorite diner after work, when he was accosted by a teen with a knife. He gave him his wallet (as you should), but then he called his mugger back (that’s gutsy). He said, “If you’re out tonight, you need my coat,” and gave it to him. “And hey – I was going to dinner, and you’re probably hungry too.” He took his mugger to the diner and ended up trading the kid dinner, his coat, and $20 for his own wallet and the teen’s knife. Julio said, “If you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

Julio learned to be nice to everyone, and he took that seriously, to a fault. Jesus invites us to do exactly that: be nice to everyone, just as God is. Not because we’re required to, exactly. Certainly, most of us aren’t capable of buying our mugger dinner. But God is able to do it in us. God usually grows this capacity for compassion within us over time.

God’s life starts with the basic idea to love everyone, even your enemies. And love for your enemies is not so different from the brother-love we talked about last week. Last week we talked about reconciling differences by granting validity (i.e. strength) to your brother or sister. This week the idea is to defuse violence by meeting the other’s weakness with gentleness. Enemy-love refuses to let violence break our fundamental relationship with each other. Even if all we can do is imagine the other person’s pain, we can claim them as something other than an oppressor or a target: we can claim them as human. That’s the beginning of praying for our enemies, truly wishing the best for people with whom we otherwise have no connection.

That’s terribly difficult to wish. I’m nowhere close to it most of the time, although God calls it forth from all of us at various points. But the reality is already within us. It’s God’s reality, working its way into our world and our lives. God’s love is within us. May we have grace to trust and share in God’s love for all people.

Amen.

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