As Jesus preached through His piercingly clear Sermon on the Mount, He began to talk about what it means to love. He pointed out that nobody should get a reward for loving the people who love you back. That’s easy. Even the tax collectors do that.
Do you remember how much the Jews hated tax collectors? They were considered the worst of sinners because they cheated their own people by overcharging them year after year to fill their own pockets. Imagine how that would enrage you as a father trying to provide for his family. Imagine how upsetting that would be for the mothers of Israel who wanted their children to have healthy food and warm clothes to wear. When Jesus mentioned a tax collector here, He was bringing to the minds of His listeners a truly bad guy…a traitor…who betrayed the people of God out of greed. They were utterly selfish. If even tax collectors love those who love them back, surely that was no special mark of the high and holy love of God’s Kingdom.
The standard of love that Jesus was setting went far beyond what anyone had expected. He said, “…if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Don’t even the pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Wow. Isn’t it interesting what gets chalked up as perfect behavior? It isn’t about giving a million dollars to charity or donating a kidney…as wonderful as those things are. Jesus said perfection is found through acts of generous love in the common interactions of everyday life. That may sound small, but it isn’t.
Think about it. If someone has the ability to show kindness to everyone they meet as a continual, determined, daily habit, then what things are they not doing? What behaviors aren’t happening? What attitudes are not going on in their minds? Jesus wanted His disciples to intentionally stretch their love to others, and if that is their preoccupation, there isn’t room the other things that create so much of the wretchedness on the earth.
But what does that look like? Jesus took it down to the level of how you greet the people around you. In Christ’s Kingdom, there is to be no subtle shunning of one person over another. We are meant make sure to greet everyone with generous love, refusing to reject any one person or group…the poor, the rich, the foreign, the illegal alien, the diseased, the depressed, the immoral, the lost, the good, the irritating. All of the silent unkindnesses that people do without words-refusing eye contact, not letting children play together, the cold tones of voice, or the sneering and ridiculing of others behind their backs, the gossip-all of these are unacceptable in the Kingdom of Heaven. Aren’t you glad? Are you convicted? If we are honest, this high and holy call to love is almost impossible for normal humans to live out perfectly every day. On any given day we are too distracted, crabby, insecure, snobby, or tired.
The only One who loved perfectly through His whole life was the Lord. He honored the Law and the Prophets with absolute obedience. And when Jesus preached on the top of that mountain, He said to His disciples that they had to be perfect, too. That was an impossible request, yet it is the way into the Kingdom! That puts the rest of humanity in a bit of a crisis. We have to obey a high and holy Law, we can see that it is worthy, but we can’t pull it off. What will happen to the twisted, sinful souls of the human race? Would the High King of Heaven have to lower His standard for pure, bright holiness by allowing our evil and filth and moral weakness to enter His Kingdom…to bring our quantities of Hell into His Heaven? It was an impossible situation.
And that was the reason Jesus came. He lived a life of perfect love and obedience, and He committed absolutely no sin. But when He came here, He became sin by taking on all our shame and failure, and then He crucified it through His own life on the cross. And because Jesus did that, we get to become His righteousness. We are made perfect through Him. God sees us with the same wonderful perfection that He sees in His beloved Son.
It is because of this incredibly beautiful, powerful act of lavish grace that we can turn to our Lord Jesus. We love Him because He first loved us. It is because of our love for Jesus and what He did that we obey Him. It isn’t about earning, it is about devotion. We long to obey with perfect obedience because we long to abide in Jesus. We want to be identified with Him as our Savior and friend in everything we do.
As the disciples listened to Jesus preach about this sacrificial love, I wonder what they thought. What was it like to walk with Jesus and watch His perfect love in action? I bet they learned hundreds of things every day as they ate with Him and listened to His words and watched Him served the people. Every day, they were learning how to be like Him. And because the disciples made sure to write down the story of Jesus’ life on earth we can read and learn from Jesus, too.