What we have just heard may be one of the most recognizable passages in all the Gospels.

The great Jewish scripture scholar C.G. Montefiore has called it “the central and most famous section” of the Sermon on the Mount.

It is also one of the most fundamentally Christian – because it is a passage that calls on each of us to be like Christ.  More than that, it calls on us to be “perfect, like the Father is perfect.”

That is a tall order.

Look at what it entails.

Turning the other cheek.

Giving away your cloak.

Walking an extra mile.

And the most radical and counter-cultural of all: Loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.

It sounds so nice and reassuring.  But think about it.

Love your enemies. Pray for your persecutors.

Consider all the people who have hurt you.  Those who have lied to you.  Stabbed you in the back.  The ones who gossiped about you or judged you unfairly.

Consider the friend that you trusted, who betrayed you.  The co-worker who broke a confidence.  The person whose name you’d rather forget — the one who wounded you, or disrespected you, or took advantage of you.  Look back on all the people in your life who have left bruises and scars, with a word or a look or a touch.

Now, imagine trying to do what seems impossible.

Love them.

Love them and pray for them.

Pray for their good.  Pray that grace will come into their lives.  Pray that their eyes may be opened, and their hearts may be healed.  Because the chances are, if someone has hurt you or persecuted you…it’s probably because someone once did the same to them.

It is a vicious cycle.  As Shakespeare put it: “Sin will pluck on sin.”

And that fundamental truth of our humanity – that the cycle just keeps going — may be one reason why Jesus, in this gospel passage, says: “Stop.  Enough.  Break the cycle.  Let it go.”

Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.

I have a hard time with it, I’ll tell you.  When someone has hurt me deeply, I’ve spent a lot of nights lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, imagining wonderful ways of getting revenge. It feels good, doesn’t it?

But that kind of thinking is ultimately self-destructive – and counter-Christian. And Jesus himself knows that.

He knows we can do better.  He knows we can aim higher.

Be perfect, he says, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In the final moments of his life, he showed us that perfection.  He taught us what he meant.  Surrounded by his enemies and his persecutors, he hung on the cross, stripped, bleeding, gasping, as they gambled for his clothes and waited for him to die. And in that moment, Jesus pleaded, and prayed: “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do.”

Here is Christian perfection – our model for life, captured at the moment of death.  Here is love beyond measure: a prayer for a broken and unknowing world.

At one time or another, each of us has been suspended on our own cross, feeling helpless, or hopeless, facing cruelty or injustice.  Maybe some of us are there now, angry at what life has done to us.

How do we pray for, and love, those we hold responsible?

As Jesus reminds us: it’s not hard to love those who love us – or to pray for those who matter to us.

Yet: we need to love those who hate us, and to pray for those who attack us.

How do we begin?

Writer Emmett Fox, in his book “Sermon on the Mount,” explains it in a way I think we all can understand.  And it starts with something so simple, but so hard: forgiveness.

He says: by not forgiving we “are tied to the thing [we] hate. The person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. Is this what you wish?”

I think we all know the answer.  We need to detach ourselves from that hook.  Then, and only then, can we begin to heal, to pray for those who have hurt us so deeply and, by God’s grace, love.

It starts with forgiveness.

I can’t talk about forgiveness without thinking of what happened 17 years ago in the small town of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. I’m sure you know the story. A man by the name of Charles Roberts walked into a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls before turning the gun on himself. Nickel Mines is Amish country, devoutly Christian. The Amish responded not with vengeance or anger or rage, but with compassion.

They responded with love.

Hours after it happened, a member of the community, wearing his black coat and hat, went to the home of the killer’s parents, to pray with them, grieve with them, console them. He wanted them to know he didn’t blame them.

They day after they buried their children, several Amish families attended Charles Roberts’ funeral. They hugged his widow. One of the Amish women, still grieving the death of her daughter, embraced the mother of the man who did it — one sorrowful mother holding another — and whispered, “We are so sorry for your loss.” Later, they raised money for the widow and her three young children.

Charles Roberts’ mother, Terri Roberts, has written a book about forgiveness, and put it simply: Forgiveness, she says, is more than a feeling. It’s a choice.

So is love. This Gospel makes that clear.

I think it’s no coincidence that we are encountering this Gospel just days before we begin the season of Lent — when we will hear scripture calling us to rend our hearts and embark on a 40-day journey of prayer, fasting and alms-giving.

Forty days that will call us to draw closer to Christ by trying to be more like him.

Hearing this challenge to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, I think, is a fitting prelude. It sets the stage for what will come.

So today, make this pre-Lenten commitment. Let us pray for the grace to make this great choice: to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable, and to remember in prayer those we’d rather forget.

Only in beginning that journey toward love, only then can we dare to approach the perfection Christ spoke of – a perfection we can never fully attain, but to which we all must strive, day by day, prayer by prayer.

Choose to be more than what you are, Christ said.

Strive to be perfect, like the Father.

Jesus showed us the way.

How could we not try to follow?