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The goal of agape love is perfection

On the Readings for Sunday, February 19, 2023

(Image: Pro Church Media/

• Lev 19:1-2, 17-18
• Psa 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
• 1 Cor 3:16-23
• Matt 5:38-48

During my first year of college, living a thousand miles from home, I found myself dealing with an unlikable, selfish housemate. Talking to my father on the phone one weekend, I expressed my frustrations and asked, “What should I do?” My father, a man who has never shied from confrontation, surprised me with his answer. “Pray for him,” he said. “When you really pray for someone, you cannot hate them.”

I took his advice—rather grudgingly—and found my perspective changing and attitude improving. I saw that while my housemate was unlikable in many ways, I wasn’t always easy to live with either.

“You shall love your neighbor,” God told Moses and the people, “as yourself.” Whatever does that mean? Does it involve liking them? Having good feelings about them? Not necessarily, since true love is not about passions and emotions, but about our will. True love chooses to seek the good for others, which means, ultimately, that we want others—including our enemies—to know and experience the grace and mercy of God.

The philosopher Rémi Brague, in his book On the God of the Christians (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), states, “God does not seek our happiness. He does not seek our unhappiness either. He seeks our good, which is to say: our sanctification. … Our good, in other words, is God himself.” God is holy and he is also, as St. John famously wrote, love (1 Jn 4:8). “Yet, if we love one another,” John also wrote, “God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 Jn 4:12).

Perfection and love go hand in hand; holiness and the gift of self to others are inseparable.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, gives very specific and surprising directives regarding acts of love: turning the other cheek, giving away one’s garments, and going the extra mile—literally, in the context of being co-opted for such labor by Roman soldiers. The Law had allowed for retribution—“eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex 21:23-25)—but also sought to limit it; the punishment should fit the crime.

Jesus, however, insists that true love is not shown by limiting retribution but through an expansion of charity and self-gift: “But I say to you, love your enemies…” Why? So that “you may be children of your heavenly Father,” filled with divine life.

Such love is exemplified not by mere absence of discord or hatred, but by communion, acts of goodness, and prayer. The goal of this agape love is perfection: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Interestingly enough, this is the same idea expressed to the rich young ruler: “If you would be perfect go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21; cf. Lk 6:35). In fact, these are the only two places where this particular word meaning “perfect” [teleioi] appears in the Gospels.

This perfection of divine sonship is found in following the perfect example of Christ, the Son of God, who reveals the radical nature of divine love by willingly dying on the Cross. Those who enter into and pursue this love, as Benedict XVI pointed out in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, embark on “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God…”

Our perfection, it must be emphasized, is a gift from God. In addition, the perfection of finite creatures cannot equal the perfection of the uncreated God. Rather, it comes through union with Jesus Christ; it comes by being filled with the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us.

“Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation,” the fathers at Vatican II explained, “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, 11).

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 23, 2014 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1201 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. A beautiful reflection – yet no comments on it so far!
    It would be interesting to know which articles appearing on CWR attract the most and the least comment. Beloved Amazon seems to be generating a reasonable number of responses.
    I have read it twice – but much prefer the above reflection.

    • “Observer70”, I agree with you in preferring reflections like the one above. Most definitely! Oh, yeah! Who wouldn’t? At the same time, focusing solely, exclusively and absolutely in God’s Awesome Agape Love while ignoring our present sinful condition and the Church’s and the world’s problems brough by sin, means that that Amazing Agape Love cannot and will not become incarnated and lived in us to free us from sin, so we can grow even more in that Agape Love. You can’t eat a most delicious meal if you are aware of some small poisonous element in that food that must be removed, and you don’t remove it, focusing exclusively in the great delight of the meal you will eat. Remember Snow White and the apple?

      The Amazon Synod related articles have received a lot of attention for that very reason. The greatest Saints, set ablaze with God’s Agape Love, and Jesus, Himself the Very Core of that Infinitely Sweet Heavenly Fire, never ignored the destructive virulence of sin, most often very well disguised as “great love”: “… wolves in sheep’s clothing”, (Matthew 7:15). You can’t have the real thing without, with much prayer, sacrifice and Grace, eliminating the very false one. That means that those most filled with God’s Agape Love must also be Warriors like Jesus Himself, which John, the Beloved Disciple, expressed so well here: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil”, (1 John 3:8).

      Agape Love without that element of tremendous sacrifice brought by standing for Truth in true love of others (especially in this day and age), isn’t real at all (which is why Mother Theresa confronted politicians on abortion, face to face). That exclusion would be just hyper-mysticism away from the True God and very centered on us (and SO much more comfortable). That’s why Jesus expressed His call to Agape Love like this, with no contradiction ever with His “softer” statements: “…take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24-26). That’s why He then proceeded to express that Ultimate Agape Love in its very highest form: on the Holy Cross! Per Crucem Ad Lucem! By the Cross to the Light! Truth and Love are the wings of the One Holy Spirit!! You can’t fly on just one of them, or on one being so much larger than the other.

      • Phil, enjoyed reading your comment very much. Agree that we need to focus on Agape love but in the context of our fallen nature which can only be redeemed by Agape love.

        The problem in the Church since the 60’s has been the promotion of Agape love with no recognition of individual sin at all. And if there is a begrudging acknowledgment of sin it’s only the sins of racism, of environmentalism and intolerance – collective sins whose remedy is more government spending and global government.

  2. Divide between anger and love is often insurmountable. At least in appearance. Carl Olson’s remedy the wisdom of his father [the one who begot him through marriage] was prayer [probably inspired by his dad’s heavenly Father]. For ages past [that’s how long it was] that divide was a constant struggle until fed up with myself and failure to forgive, or ‘feel’ that I really forgave my response was, I’ll offer prayer for that person it’s the best I can do. Christ after all commands we pray for our enemies what else could I do. I found that continued prayer when memory and anger flared had a salutary effect. Anger ceased even a sense of good emerged [agape?]. As is often the case it was Aquinas’ insistence that good or evil is in the will that tied in. I began preaching that theme to parishioners emphasizing Love is willed not necessarily emotive citing difficult scenarios when seriously offended. Later that approach was confirmed by Christ who counselled St Faustina to will good for the offender since we cannot always control our emotional reactions to injury. At any rate this subject and its resolution is of the highest value because forgiveness is of the highest requisites. Forgiveness is mercy and translates as divinely inspired love.

    • You must be perfected as your heavenly Father is perfect (Catholic translation found in breviary since Vat II). “I don’t think that what Jesus was asking from us is perfection. He was asking a lot, but not that. It is interesting that all the translations stick with the word ‘perfect’ for Matthew 5.48” (Bible Society). Olson quotes a verse to support our vocation to that love. You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. The ‘be perfected’ seems more reasonable though somehow has the nuance of disappointment. Agapē is reciprocal love God and Man. Although it seems reasonably impossible to be as perfect as God we may like myself sense if God says so, he can do it. How? is answered brilliantly by Saint John of the Cross in The Living Flame of Love. He says with the contemplative foreshadowing the beatific vision there is a transference of love, God infusing in the soul of man his own infinite love [apparently within the capacity of the person]. That flame of love is returned to God. Isn’t that what prevenient grace and sanctifying grace is, an exchange of love initially inspired by God? We either accept or decline the latter resulting in the dreadful Wrath of God. We know by all indication many, the apparent vast majority refuse that gift. If grace is at work within the heart it becomes Christlike. St Catherine of Siena and St Maria Faustina both assert God, Christ respectively revealed that his great passion is to save souls from eternal damnation, the “Ultimate calamity” expressed by Therese of Lisieux. That tells why the saints all focused on the salvation of souls. Because like Christ they had that gift of compassion for sinners.

  3. Thank you, Carl.You are a valued and reliable source of interpreting our existence through the lens of that most central, but most ignored tenet of the Faith–divine filiation.

    • Dear brother Daniel Fink, if, as you say, Agape Love was truly a “… most ignored tenet of the Faith–divine filiation”, the Catholic Church would not exist today, and that without any help at all from its enemies. There has been for 2,000 years and there is now much of Agape Love in the Catholic Church (thanks be to God!!) but it almost never makes the news, as TRUE Agape Love has no interest at all in recognition, publicity, emotions and applause, which are the absolute very opposite things to its core essence. We would have disappeared long ago without that all-powerful, quiet, modest love (1 Kings 19:11-13).

      After Mass, my daughter and I saw a lady who bought breakfast across the street at a fast food restaurant. Then she saw a young unkempt homeless man and walked to him, gave him her breakfast and coffee and said to him: “Be good, my dear boy!” and kissed him on the forehead. She walked home without any other food. Would you have known about her if I didn’t tell you?

      Also, today’s tsunami of brain-and-heart-washing propaganda has painted Agape Love as being always a very sentimental, very emotional, ecstasy producing, video-ready, tear-jerking, TV-Personality-approved thing. The Holy Cross forever proves that that definition is supremely bogus. The Holy Cross changed History forever because it is the Supreme Expression of Agape Love, and the false “safety” so promised by that other false love is truly only found in the Supreme Agape Love of the Cross!

      When you submit first and exclusively to Jesus, getting all the ultimate safety you will ever need (Romans 8:38-39), then and only then are your feelings supremely elevated and empowered as humble servants and not as proud, emotional, destructive masters. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”, (Matthew 23:12). It takes plenty of True Humility, Love and Sacrifice to live in and speak up in Jesus’ Name!! We must all ASK for them! That’s True Jesus’ Style Agape Love!!

  4. What I questioned was whether simply forgiving was sufficient to forgive from the heart?. But then it’s not about a feeling, or gained happiness rather doing God’s will. And to pray for that despicable person is sufficient. Or is it? Whatever it is it must be scriptural love as revealed by Christ that perfect love between God and man. But it’s within that transaction that we may and must love our brother selflessly. Not seeking reward.
    Agape love insofar as love for our brother must therefore encompass exactly how Christ [who reveals the Father’s love] loved us, that is, in his suffering and death. Why John [the Apostle] says we must be willing to lay down our life for that brother. So prayer is insufficient.
    We’re required to sacrifice, which is to suffer. Suffering comes in many forms, the most common pain. That may touch emotional pain. Whatever costs us, that is, to give that which we would prefer to withhold is that form of Christlike suffering love that during this great crisis of faith in the Church will save souls from perishing. And, if our desire will gain us Christ.

  5. “If your enemy (or agitator) is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head…conquer evil with good,” (Rom 12:20, 21). By praying fervently for those, I experienced the most surprising things happen in my favor. God is Love, that is His holy perfection. The holy sacred love of God is a consuming fire. “For it is love that I desire.” (Hosea 6:6). Agape love the highest love includes all love because if He bestowed love in His creatures it is a taste of the perfected Love. “We must all be partakers of the holiness of Jesus.” Holy love is His glory! “And I have given them the glory YOU gave ME, so they may be one as we are one. I in them and You in ME that they be brought to perfection.” *Jn 17:22,23). “When God finds a soul made attractive through grace, He is impelled to grant her more grace…now He can love her intimately…He puts her somehow in himself and makes her His equal…” (Science of the Cross, Edith Stein, p.266). Sanctified and perfected in holy Agape Love of God; how do we get there? I know, Jesus is our brother and our friend, but many have lost the sense of AWE; the sense of awe and fear of the Lord. “In these days He has spoken to us by his Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, by whom He also made the world…who being the brightness of His Glory, and the figure of His substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, making purgation of sins, sitting on the right hand of the majesty on high.” (Heb 1:2,3). God Himself made himself the eternal sacrifice and our heavenly food. Our hearts should be pouring out love and affection and be ever increasing in love and submission to Him who loves His creatures that much.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The goal of agape love is perfection - Catholic Mass Search
  2. The goal of agape love is perfection | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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