Matthew 5:38-48 / 7 Epiphany A / 20 February 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
You, therefore, will be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Mt 5:48
If you listened carefully, you will have noticed that I pulled a Law/Gospel fast one on you. You heard the Gospel reading say, “You therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And then I just said, “You, therefore, will be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” So which is it?
The first way of translating it is the Law – You must be perfect, without any moral or spiritual defect, measured against your Father in heaven who is perfect. Don’t measure yourself by those around you. Measure yourself against God your Father. Don’t stand around and say, “Well, no one’s perfect.” That’s no excuse. God is perfect. Don’t settle for less if you want to be called children of God. You must reflect who your Father is. Do you call God “Father?” Do you dare to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven?” Then measure yourself against your Father. Be perfect, as He is perfect.
Read that way, Jesus seems to have ratcheted up the bar to infinity. Perfect. Not pretty good. Not trying harder. Not working on it and making some baby steps of improvement along the way. Perfect. He started out this section on the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious do-gooders and commandment keepers, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. That was bad enough. You have to outdo the best of the lot when it comes to commandment-keeping.
And then Jesus goes on a little riff through the commandments, doing the deep diagnosis, pushing things all the way to the heart. You’ve heard it said, “Thou shalt not kill,” but I say to you don’t even call your brother a name. You’ve heard it said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but I say to you don’t even look or think about it. You’ve heart it said, “Don’t lie under oath,” but I say to you, don’t even swear and oath at all but let your word be a pure, unadulterated yes and no.
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, toss it away. Better to lose a body part or two than to be thrown whole hog into hell. I see nothing but two-eyed, two-handed people here today. I guess no one’s eye or hand caused them to stumble this week. Or maybe the one-eyed stayed home, but, oops, that would be a sin too, wouldn’t it?
How’s it going for you? Are you ascending that ladder to the kingdom? Working those commandments like a gym workout? Feeling the burn? Are you feeling any closer to those pearly gates of the kingdom? Keeping those commandments better than the scribes and the Pharisees kept them? Not only keeping them, but loving God and loving your neighbor? How’s it going for you? Are you going to make it? You want to earn your way into the kingdom? Well, you’ve got a big job ahead of you. And as we heard last week, you’ve also got a big problem. It’s called Sin with a capital S. Big S Sin. Sin as in original sin, the origin of all sins, the inherited, fatal disease that comes down from Adam to us in unbroken succession from father to child.
That’s the deep diagnosis that Good Doctor Jesus delivered last week, and He has a few more divine CAT scans to put up on the screen today. Let’s talk about how it goes with your enemies. Not the people you like and who like you. Those are easy to love and be nice to. Everyone is nice to their friends, but how you treat your enemies tells a lot about you and what’s going on inside that little beating heart of yours.
“You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.” If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer him the left. If someone wants your coat, let him have the shirt off your back. If someone forces you to go a mile, go two. Give to the one who begs from you, lend to the one who would borrow from you.”
How’s it going for you now? No retaliation. No pound of flesh. No resistance. No rationalizing and loopholing here. If you want to take the law of God seriously, this is where the law of God is going to take you. This isn’t our way, it’s God’s way. Our way is to fight evil and kill the evildoers. God’s way is to drown evil with good and save the evildoers. If someone strikes us on the right cheek, we strike back before he gets a second shot. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life.” It’s the Law. If someone sues us, we sue back. If someone forces us to do something, we do less than required not more. Ever hear of someone paying more than the required income tax?
As a professor at Concordia-Irvine, I learned to be more specific about term papers. It wasn’t enough to say “a ten page paper.” That worked in the days of the typewriter that had fixed fonts and spacing. I learned to say, ten pages, helvetica font, 12 point, single spaced, 1 inch margins. Or more simply 5000 words. What’s the least we have to do?
That’s what life under the Law is like. You look at the bar and you creep up to meet it from below. Just enough and no more. That’s why Jesus raises the bar to infinity.
“You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor, hate your enemy.” Straight out of the Torah and the rabbis. “But I say to you love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” A son reflects his father. Your Father who is in heaven, loves His enemies and does good to those who hate Him. He causes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. There are no little local showers over the good people. There are no local rains and bits of sunshine for the religious people. Everyone gets the same rain, the same sunshine. The same Jesus.
While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us. Enemies. That’s what Sin makes us – enemies of God. If God were to love His neighbor and hate His enemy, then it would simply be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and no one else. A closed community of Three. God loved the world. God loved His enemies. He sent His Son Jesus. He was slapped and offered the other cheek. He was forced to go one mile and went the whole way to the cross. They stripped him of his cloak and his seamless robe. He gave to all who asked of Him. He prayed for His persecutors – “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” He did it as the only-begotten Son of the Father so that you might become sons of your Father who is in heaven.
He did it to completion, and when it was completed He said so. It is finished. Tetelesthai. It is complete; it is finished. Same word as we have here in the verse where we began. “You will be complete, whole. Teleios. as your Father in heaven is teleios, complete.
“You must be perfect?” or “You will be perfect?” Perfect as in complete, whole, all that you are and all that God has made you to be. Which is it? Law or Gospel? Your doing or Jesus’ doing?
If it’s Law, if it’s all up to you to do, then it is as outrageous a law as gouging out an offending eye, cutting off an offending hand, never so much as looking at a pretty girl with anything but a pure heart, and loving the very people who hate you and want you dead. If it’s Law, if it’s all up to you to do, then forget about your eyes and hands, you need to fix that heart that hate the enemy, that returns curse for curse, that lusts after women you can’t have, that secretly mutters evil against the brother and refuses to forgive him. You’re problem is not what you do, that only scratches the surface. You’re problem is who you are – a Sinner. A world-class sinner. Chief of sinners, along with no less than the apostle Paul.
If this is Gospel, if Jesus is capping this all off by promising that you will be perfect, complete, whole, entire as your Father in heaven is perfect, not because of something you have done, but because of everything that Jesus has done, by His perfect life lived in your place, by His becoming Sin for you, by His death on the cross, by His resurrection and ascension, and by the outpouring of His Spirit upon you in Baptism, if this is what He means, then it is the greatest good news your ears could possibly hear. Moses couldn’t promise this or deliver it. He could only get you as far as the scribes and the Pharisees. But Jesus can take you over the top, beyond the Law to completion, wholeness, yes, the kingdom of heaven.
“That I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve HIm in everlasting righteousness (not yours, His), innocence (not yours, His), and blessedness (not yours, His).” You will be perfect, perfected in Jesus’ perfection. You will be holy, as the Lord your God is holy. Holy in Jesus’ holiness.
Does this mean you get to punch your your enemy? Ogle those pretty girls? Dump your spouses? Refuse to be reconciled with your brother? Refuse to pray for your persecutors? Sin that God’s grace may abound? Of course not! You’re perfect in Christ. You have His complete righteousness and holiness. You are a child of God, as perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. You are salt, seasoning the world with Jesus. You are light, reflecting the light of Christ into the world. Why would you settle for anything less than what Jesus has won for you?
The Beatitudes echo back from the beginning of the chapter to here. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure hearted, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Blessed are those who offer the other cheek, who walk the extra mile, who give the shirt off their back, who love their haters, who pray for their enemies, who drown out evil with good.
Blessed are those who live in the perfect completeness of Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,