43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This famous passage in Matthew is part of the chapter that includes the Sermon on the Mount; it was meant to present Jesus’ fundamental message in compendium form. It is a summary collection, organized to help catechumens learn what it meant to be Christian in preparation for their upcoming baptism.
In broad terms, the passage illustrates, within the Jewish tradition of expression, a basic characteristic of all religion everywhere: the intimate mirroring that makes the believer an image of the divine principle, whatever it is thought to be. What’s most interesting for me in this particular case is that Jewish Jesus happens to select for an image an especially disturbing “fact” about his Father, Yahweh, which he then calls on his listeners to imitate. Matthew punctuates the importance of this invitation of Jesus by adding a note of ultimacy: this is not just a nice way to be; this is what it means to be perfect.
The image of Yahweh being the cause of the sun shining on everyone whether they are good or bad, and the rain falling on all people indiscriminately regardless of their morality, religion or life-style, however commonplace it might sound at first, is really quite shocking; for it stands in stark contrast with the Yahweh depicted throughout the Old Testament whose principal characteristic was fierce and discriminating judgment. The image totally upends the traditional picture of “God.” Did Jesus mean to do that? Or was the image, precisely because it was so commonplace, just an illustration, not a theological challenge to a millennial Jewish belief?
Yahweh, traditionally, was anything but indiscriminate. Early on in Jewish history, he was believed to distinguish sharply between the people with whom he had a contract ― the Hebrews ― and all others on the face of the earth. He was a tribal god. The Hebrews alone, because they were “believers,” were the object of Yahweh’s love and protection. He promised to reward them as a people with prosperity and longevity and to punish with dire calamities those “unbelievers” who opposed them. The first victims were the Egyptians who suffered devastating plagues leading up to the death of their oldest children for having enslaved the Hebrews; and then, after leaving Egypt, Yahweh’s wrath was visited upon the “nations” who served other gods in the Palestinian lands the Hebrews desired for their own. Yahweh’s discriminating judgment not only insured those tribes would be dispossessed of their land, but their refusal to submit to the Hebrews’ god entailed nothing less than their extermination. Genocide was justified as the will of a lethally discriminating Yahweh.
Later on, the remnants of the original 12 tribes that came out of Egypt, became the victims of the geopolitical ambitions of the powerful Mesopotamian empires within whose sphere of interest Israel lay. For refusal to submit to the Babylonians, the last of the Hebrew population was hauled off in slavery to Babylon and the nation ceased to exist in 587 bce. This catastrophic event provided evidence for Hebrews that the original contract with Yahweh had been shredded. Either the Hebrews had so totally betrayed the contract that Yahweh felt it necessary to pull out of it unilaterally, or maybe there was more involved than the contract had supposed. It occasioned a profound re-thinking of the very foundations of Hebrew belief and it resulted in the beginnings of a change in the imagery with which Yahweh was described.
Yahweh became a “God” of justice, more interested in honesty in relationships, equity in trade, truth in the courts, protection for the poor and defenseless, fairness from rulers, humility and love from those who professed to follow him. But in all these moral matters Yahweh remained as fiercely discriminating as ever, hating injustice “with a perfect hatred” and thundering against it through his prophets who minced no words, and vowing to bring the perpetrators of unfairness and exploitation to ruin. That included other nations. Yahweh stopped being just a tribal god and became a universal “God” of moral rightness, but he never displayed any tendency toward treating the bad and the good the same. He was not indiscriminate. No Jew before Jesus had ever used such a radical image to describe Yahweh and call for its imitation.
Jesus’ vision and ours
Jesus’ own view of the matter may have been less radical than what I am suggesting. Commentary in the Jerusalem Bible insists that “the sovereignty of God over the Chosen People and through them over the world is at the heart of Christ’s preaching as it was of the theocratic ideal of the O.T.” If this applies to Jesus’ use of the imagery of sun and rain, then clearly by evoking it Jesus did not intend to offer a new way of looking at “God” but rather very simply that the weather itself ought to remind us how we should act toward all people. It was a teaching tool, not a theological challenge.
But facts are facts, and the imagery of the indiscriminateness of the weather is itself evocative of the material source of our being-here for those like us who have been formed by the discoveries of modern science, whether Jesus was aware of it or not. We know that the imagery of a micro-managing rational “God”-person who controls what happens on earth down to the last detail is simply not true, even though Jesus may have believed it. We know that meteorological occurrences are due to the autonomous interactions of material elements affected entirely by natural forces like gravity, planetary spin, seasonal regional warming by the sun, etc., without any need for or evidence of any rational intervention. As a matter of fact, for those who have been following this blog, the suggestion that what we have been calling “God” ― meaning the source of our sense of the awe of being-here and our spontaneous gratitude for what has put us here as ourselves ― is made functionally comprehensible by using the imagery of living material energy itself as our source and sustainer. And the suggestion I am making is that what Jesus said, whether he intended it that way or not, dovetails perfectly with our modern understanding of how the world was created and mankind was formed. It was all the work of living material energy autonomously evolving new formations of itself in response to changing environments through eons of astral and geologic time. There was no hands-on divine Craftsman, no seven days of creation, no events as depicted in the Book of Genesis to explain how things got here and got to be what they are.
Clearly, whatever the physics / metaphysics behind the weather, it was, as a phenomenon, its absolute randomness and indiscriminateness that was tapped by Jesus as an apt image to explain how to be like our Father ― how to be perfect. So whether or not Jesus knew the full story scientifically is irrelevant. And whether Jesus intended to use the weather to characterize the absolute and unqualified universality of “God’s” relationship to all things, the connection that Jesus focused on is both true and an apt image applicable to “God” “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Looking at it this way, regardless of the commentators’ probable opinions, there is nothing that absolutely prevents Jesus from having had exactly the point I am making in mind, and even if he didn’t there is nothing to prevent us from making it: perfection involves a love so intensely universal and uncompromisingly indiscriminate that it appears as the most profound detachment in a point for point imitation of the autonomous way material energy operates in our material universe; and we are justified in calling it perfection because, as Jesus suggested, that’s what “God” is like.
Imagery is important. It is not merely a mnemonic device, a visual aid that reminds us of some abstract thought or moral command. It expresses and embodies its significance for us in an undiluted concrete form. To love those whom we are not inclined to love, Jesus is effectively saying, or for whom we have a positive and incurable aversion, is not some “new commandment” that he was promulgating to transcend the law of Moses and impose another set of obligations. No. It is the way “God” is and therefore is really the way we humans are and have always been.
One of the reasons we are so unhappy is that no one ever pointed this out to us before. This is our nature, genetically innate, inherited directly from our Father, our Source, and if we don’t do what concurs with nature, we will be frustrated without ever knowing why. Understood this way the word teleios in Greek, “ended,” that has been translated “perfect,” really means finished, complete, suggesting something that “fulfilled its purpose” or achieved the end for which it was made (the word teleology is derived from the same Greek root, telos, “end”). It is the very nature of humankind, reproducing and recapitulating the structural elements of which we are made, to love without discrimination, even those who hate us and whom our paranoid conatus warns us to hate in return or be destroyed.
The circularity so characteristic of all religion comes into play at this point. As the source generated the image, the image in turn reveals the source. Now the image of the indiscriminate lover ― what one modern mystic called “the oldest trade in the world,” being available to the next comer ― proves its foundational authenticity by making us insanely happy and transforming our communities. It reveals what we are made of, what no one has ever seen. The circularity suggests that the concrete experience of converting our organic instincts for individual self-preservation and enhancement into energies for the self-preservation and enhancement of all others reveals the fundamental character of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” Just like the sun and the rain, it is equally available and gratefully absorbed by all. The only knowledge of “God,” the Source of our bodies, that we will ever have is in the somatic experience of our own dynamism redirected outward in compassion and care for others.