I didn’t know how hard it was to love the homeless until I became friends with someone who needed a home.
I met Evan (name changed for anonymity) when we were both kids, but it was only when we were young adults that I came to understand his situation. I’d see him walking around our hometown and would offer him rides to where he needed to go. During these rides he told me he’d been struggling with a variety of vices since high school and was facing a list of criminal charges.
He’s been in and out of jail and prison repeatedly since that time, and almost without exception he’s needed a place to stay each time he gets out. Unfortunately (yet understandably) his family will no longer allow him to stay with them, and I feel uncomfortable letting him stay at my at my house with my wife and children — particularly because I know I don’t have the spine to lay down ground rules (“be here by 9 each night,” “don’t bring any drugs,” etc.) and stick to them.
After all, when he wants something, he’s persistent. He has to be. He’s lived on the streets.
Evan’s persistence and the constant demand for help have made me realize just how much I struggle to love someone in his shoes. When I see a phone call from him I feel more anxiety than generosity. I feel closed off rather than warm and kind. I still give him help and chip in for him to stay in an apartment with a friend he met in jail, but I’m embarrassed that the experience has made me realize how little love I truly feel in this situation. I wish I were different. I wish I practiced a life that embodied impartial love.
This wish brings to mind a New Testament passage — the culmination of the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus invites his listeners to love beyond their tribe. He asks, “If ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?” and adds that just as God sends rain for all human beings, so too should we extend our love to all human beings.
He then invites his listeners to be perfect.
When I was a high school student in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' seminary class, I thought this verse about being perfect was about having absolutely no flaws. Specifically, I thought it was about purging all sexually charged thoughts from my mind and being completely pure in every single thing I did. This interpretation was perhaps well-intentioned, but it was a severe misreading of the verse. I overlooked the word therefore.
“Be ye therefore perfect.”
The invitation immediately follows the passage about how God loves all human beings and how we should too. Taking this into consideration, a better reading (one that several biblical scholars have put forward) might be something like this:
“You have heard that it has been said that you should love partially — that you should love the people who are part of your tribe and not love people who aren’t part of your tribe. But I say that you should love all people. After all, God causes the sun to rise on all people and sends rain on all people. Therefore, you should be impartial, even as God is impartial.”
This impartial love should permeate your being, so your love is, in a word, perfect. So you are complete and whole in your love, so you love people who are hard to love.
This is a tall order, one that I struggle to measure up to, as I’ve outlined above. But it feels far more in line with the rest of Jesus’ message than the notion that he’s telling his audience to never make a single mistake or have a single flaw. By narrowing the focus to love, Jesus makes the concept of perfection a possibility. It means, in practical terms, that I must nurture generosity, warmth and impartiality for each person I meet — especially for those who don't fit my tribe.
I believe I will continue to fall short of this goal over and over again. But it helps to have the goal so clearly outlined. It helps to know what my focus should be and to know that the task isn’t as monumental and insurmountable as becoming 100 percent free of flaws. Instead, I can practice feeling genuine love for someone like Evan, and that is sufficient.
Jon Ogden is the author of "When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life," a book that aims to bridge differences when people disagree about religious belief.