Leviticus 19:1–2, 17–18
Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.
Psalm 103: 1–4,8,10, 12–13
Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
1 Corinthians 3:16–23
Are you not aware that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.
Background on the Gospel
The last two antitheses offered in the Sermon on the Mount deal with love of enemies. We should not look at “an eye for an eye” as an inordinately strict punishment. It is actually meant to limit acts of revenge by making sure the punishment is not excessive but fits the crime. However, Jesus asks his followers to take a different approach by resisting retaliation altogether. The response to a stronger person who slaps us on the cheek, takes us to court, or demands a service of us is not to resist. Similarly, for a weaker person, such as a beggar or borrower, we are to give him or her what he or she asks for. Those who are called to the Kingdom of Heaven are to go beyond the way the world usually works and serve God’s kingdom here on earth.
The other difficult demand of those who are called to the kingdom is to embrace the enemy. There is no command in the Old Testament to hate individuals in a personal or vindictive way. But there is a religious stance that calls one to hate evil and to distance oneself from those who participate in evil. In contrast, Matthew emphasizes that love of God and love of neighbor are the fundamental commands on which all else depend. Because God’s love is unconditional, we are to strive to love as God does, though, of course, it is challenging. Is it even possible?
The key is in the final verse. We are to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. Matthew uses the Greek word telos, which is probably better translated here as “complete.” We are not to be perfect as in doing everything correctly, that is, as in being absolutely morally correct. We are to be perfect as in striving to reach the completeness we are called to in the Kingdom of Heaven. Attempting to love our enemies is part of striving for that completeness.