Summary: Our behavior should reflect our relationship with the perfect God, rather than our relationships with imperfect people.
Once upon a time, long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, that passage from Matthew changed my life. Well, it wasn’t another galaxy, exactly, but it was certainly another world. And it certainly feels like a longtime ago. I started working for the Pillsbury Company over 30 years ago. But this story takes place in 1987, about 3 years after I became a Christian.
Many of you know what it’s like to be in a company which is undergoing upper management shake-outs, and others have fought off corporate takeovers and buyouts. We were doing both at once. And management handled it by squeezing budgets and cutting staff. So you can imagine the morale was very low. At any rate, when this particular part of the story began, the Risk Management Dept, in which I was number 3 on the totem pole, had lost two directors and two assistant directors in two years, and after a few months of managing without any other professional staff at all, I trained in a new boss - a bright young treasury vice president who looked as though she was good for the long haul. Once she got her feet wet they brought in a lawyer to actually run the department, and I was free to go on vacation. Before I went, though, we had a long talk about my future and where I wanted to go with the company. I said that I wanted to move away from number-crunching and get into contract negotiations. And then I went off for 3 lovely weeks in Italy.
I came back to find myself number three on the totem pole again, assigned to crunching numbers as if we’d never had the discussion at all, with another bright young thing with a brand new MBA whom I’ll call Zoe brought in to be the number two. I was FURIOUS. It wasn’t exactly persecution, but it certainly felt like betrayal and injustice. I spent several weeks being just barely one step above sullen and uncooperative. It wasn’t pleasant for anyone. And it certainly wasn’t Zoe’s fault, she had no idea of the back ground. But then I read this passage from the Sermon on the Mount in my devotions. It was like being struck by lightning. I felt as though Jesus was addressing me personally.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate
your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what
reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And
if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than
others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as
your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That is what I heard. And this is how I understood it. God is always who he is. God always loves, God always does good things. Even when God disciplines us, it is for good; even when he allows bad things to happen to us, he brings good out of it, because God cannot do otherwise. Love is who God is. That is what it means by God being perfect. He isn’t partly one thing and partly another. He doesn’t change with the weather or the tides or even with the behavior of his creation. And I understood that I, too, was to be the same all the time, regardless of how people behaved towards me. And the person that God called me to be was the one he had redeemed in Jesus Christ, the one whom he loved. And so all of my behavior was to flow out of that relationship, rather than from other people’s behavior.
And so I changed how I behaved, both to Zoe and to everybody else in the department. And everything changed from that moment on. And out of my willing cooperation from that moment on, I found myself not only crunching numbers, but traveling all over the country training Pillsbury subsidiaries in the use of information systems for managing casualty losses, and at the end was the only person in the department given the option of staying on when we were bought out by Grand Metropolitan a few years later. It was the best advice I had ever gotten, and yet when I first read the passage, it seemed both impossible and unrealistic.
Now, I can’t promise you that because you are nice to them, other people will be nice to you. I can’t promise you that if you display God’s love to them, they will respond favorably to God. But I can promise you that if you change, the whole dynamic of the relationship will change in some way, some important way, that you may not even imagine at the outset. And in any case, it’s not really about your relationship with them. It’s about your relationship to God.