I don’t know about you, friends; but for me the question that fairly well leaps to mind upon hearing this particular text is pretty basic: Really? Can Jesus actually be serious about this?
I mean, come on! Here we are, at what might well be considered the pinnacle of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” with all those lovely words of beatitude and salt and light, but now he’s commanding his disciples (mind you, not suggesting nor gently chiding, but commanding) to do some of the most difficult things imaginable: to turn the other cheek, to not retaliate against an evildoer, to love your enemies and to pray for those who would attack you, verbally or otherwise. We’ve just done three weeks on love here at the church, and what we found out is that love is hard work under the best of circumstances; and now Jesus wants us to love the people we hate, and worse, the people who hate us? And then there’s that business of giving someone your cloak even if that person’s just stolen your coat; and how we’re supposed to “go also the second mile” when you’ve just been forced to go the first!
How could Jesus be serious about something like that? Never mind how next-to-impossible such a thing would be for most of us to do in any kind of consistent or lasting way; in this dog-eat-dog world we live in, where only the strong survive (!), this kind of thinking is at best sheer folly and pious idealism! How many governments do you know of that make it a matter of foreign policy to “resist evildoers” by “turning the other cheek?” For that matter, who among us honestly feels as though we ought to give to anyone who begs from us, regardless of amount or circumstance, and then actually follows through with that in practice? That kind of altruism, while laudable, just seems impractical and out of sync with “real life” as we know it in this world.
So Jesus can’t really be serious about all this; it’s… exaggeration, right? It’s sort of like the parables that Jesus told; he’s looking at all this in the extreme, so in thinking about it you and I can find the middle ground where we can all comfortably stand; that place where we can be good people, feeling good about living good and “blessed” lives… yeah, that’s it.
End of sermon… let’s sing the final hymn and go home!
No… turns out that Jesus was – and is – very serious about this. And the clincher comes in the final verse that we read this morning: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
You see, what Jesus is doing in this “sermon on the mount” – which as it’s given to us in Matthew is the most extended teaching we have from Jesus – is outlining in very practical terms his vision of God’s kingdom and is issuing a summons to those who desire to be a part of it. What he’s also doing is lifting up the Law of Moses – an already hard-to-keep series of commandments, starting right from the first ten – and taking it to the next level. It’s all through what Jesus says in Matthew 5: you’ve heard it said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, “do not resist an evildoer;” in fact, if someone comes up and strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other and let him have at it. Now, that’s a pretty radical response to violence, no doubt; and it was no less shocking to those who first heard Jesus speak those words. After all, he was taking what was considered to be Israel’s own “Holy Code” of righteousness and saying to them in effect, that’s all fine, but wait a minute; you need to do better than that; in fact, he said, you need to be perfect, just like your heavenly Father is perfect.
Which, trust me, made their ears all perk up; because Jesus had just drawn from a verse in Leviticus, words from God himself that they all knew very well: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) Perfect. Holy and Perfect. That’s it… that’s what Jesus was telling them, and that’s what he’s telling us today. Perfect: as far as the kingdom of God is concerned, that’s what you need to be.
So then the question before us this morning, friends, is what do we do with that? Because as we well know, as we’ve learned it time and time again in this life, nobody’s perfect; and though I can’t speak for any of you, I’m pretty certain that on this side of the hereafter I’m never going to be perfect! It really pains me to have to admit this, but I know that spiritually speaking, I’m always going to be that guy in the insurance commercial who revs up his chainsaw to cut a branch off a tree in his yard, only to have that branch smash right onto the top of the neighbor’s car! As the song that’s played through that commercial (from the ‘80’s this time!), “I’m only human, a flesh and blood affair.” Much as I want to wholly embrace this kingdom ideal of always being giving and forgiving, you see, it tends to be more a part of my DNA to be more reactive about how I respond to having been hurt; more selective as to how I give of myself and to who; and where love is concerned, well… Jesus was right about one thing: it is much easier to “love those who love you” than it is to love your enemies with any real integrity!
You know what I’m talking about here, friends; because we’re there, each one of us: we understand what Jesus is saying, and deep down we know that this is the kind of “perfection” that’s analogous to the kingdom and essential to the Christian life. The problem becomes how we can possibly seek to live up to that kind of perfection.
That’s why it’s good news indeed that when Jesus says that are to be perfect as God is perfect, it’s not perfection based solely on strict and unattainable moral adherence; it can’t be, because we aren’t there; we’re “only human,” after all; at the very heart of it all, we’re flawed and sinful people who fall far short of the glory of God and his kingdom. But we’re also people so loved, so utterly adored by God that by his grace we are moved toward the kingdom and given the ideal of perfection to move us in that direction.
Let me explain this; it actually comes down to the translation. You see, in the original Greek of the New Testament, the word that’s used for “perfect” stems from the Greek word telos, which means “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” So as Jesus is using the word perfect, he’s talking about our goal of accomplishing God’s purpose for our lives in the same way that God embodies his own divine nature and purpose. Jesus is not saying to us, you have to already be there in terms of this radical love and forgiveness of which I am speaking here, but he is saying that you do have to be working toward it; you do have to be embracing it as the “end-game” of your life. The sense of this word perfect is more about becoming what is intended for us, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose for his or her life.
So what we’re talking about in this passage is not hopeless denouement; in no way is Jesus saying here that because of our imperfections you and I are never, ever going to rise to the level of Kingdom caliber people, so just forget it; no, Jesus is seeking to send us forth into the world with a new understanding of who we are and what we’re about as his disciples: as Eugene Peterson has translated this verse in The Message, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
Now, does this get us off the hook as to this intensified “Holy Code” that’s found in this gospel? Sorry, no… not at all; but what this helps us to understand is that we can only do all of what Jesus is commanding us – repaying evil with good, forgiving and praying for those who harm us – only to the degree that we can live unto God-given identity as blessed and beloved children.
In other words, you can’t give what you don’t have, and only those who have experienced love can in turn share it with others; which is why it matters that it’s Jesus who is saying these things to us in the first place: Jesus, “the one who not only talked the talk of love but walked the walk, treading steadfastly to Jerusalem, enduring the shame and humiliation of the cross, embracing death itself… all so that we might know, experience, and trust just how much God loves us and thereby… have abundant life.” I love what David J. Lose, who is a professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, says about this: “This Jesus not only commands, he also understands, understands just how hard it is for us to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than begrudge, to embrace rather than protect, to share rather than hoard, to heal rather than wound, especially when we ourselves walk so much of our lives wounded and hurt.”
When we understand that, beloved; when that truth becomes embedded within our hearts, then to “be perfect as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” will no longer be the impossible standard for our lives: but a graceful reality that we come to know gradually as we strive to move faithfully through this world’s barrage of painfully mixed messages, learning to live and to love as “children of your Father in heaven,” as Jesus himself put it.
Will it be an easy thing for us? Certainly not; we all know how so many things get in the way of that; the past disappointments or hurts that still haunt us; the old grudges and wounds that are a long time healing; the painful memories that are slow to fade. But in and through it all; amidst our times of anger, grief and despair that would seek to define and control us, there is also the deep and abiding love of Christ that seeps through and brings healing and new hope to others, to our world, and most especially to ourselves. It is in those moments that the kingdom of God will most certainly take root and start to grow within and around us!
Yes, I’m here to confess to you today, as though you haven’t figured this out already, that I’m NOT perfect. And, lest you are tempted to leave here this morning thinking otherwise, neither are you! But I can also say, with great joy and gladness, that you and I, as imperfect as we are, are God’s people; and moreover, kingdom people, created to embody God’s kingdom in who we are and how we live. It is said, you know, that St. Augustine, that seminal church father of the 4th century, would often say to congregants who came to him to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.” What an incredible blessing that is; that we don’t have to settle for what we’ve been, or even what we’re convinced we are; but can rejoice in what God in Jesus Christ has placed within us to be!
We are perfection in process, beloved; to quote Eugene Peterson, “a kingdom people, blessed and beloved by God and called to be salt and light in the world.” So with that in heart, let us go, and be just who we are for the sake of Christ and his kingdom!
And as we do, let our thanks be unto God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry