Epiphany 7, Year A
Texts: Lev 19.1-2, 9-16; 1 Cor 3.10-11, 16-23; Matt 5.38-48
“Be perfect,” he says. No pressure. You might recall that when Moses first delivered the law to Israel, he said, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30.11-14) As Jesus interprets this law, he seems to be moving it further and further away, making it less likely that we could ever do it. What good is a law that can’t be followed?
We have a saying in modern English: “Nobody’s perfect.” We are fully cognizant of the fact that despite—and even sometimes because of—our best intentions, we screw up. We humans are broken, imperfect beings, incapable of perfection; and yet, here is Jesus, the Son of the God who made us, telling us to do just that: be perfect.
How many of us in reading these last two gospel lessons have recognized our own failure to live out these commands? If you’ve been divorced, if you’ve ever been angry or looked at someone with “lust in your heart,” if you’ve ever been hurt and struck back in anger (either physically or verbally) then you know just how hard it is to keep these laws that Jesus gives. For us, they may as well be up in heaven; they are out of our reach. “Be perfect,” he says. Sure, Jesus, no problem…
Now, there are some interesting things going on in this sermon that our defensiveness before the text might keep us from recognizing. For example: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Since striking someone on the right cheek with the right hand is a backhanded slap, this is an insult more than an injury; it was given by a superior to an inferior: a master to a slave, a parent to a child, a Roman to a Jew. To offer the left cheek requires the striker to hit with either an open palm or a closed fist, the way one equal strikes another. Turning the other cheek says in effect, “Try again; your attempt to demean me has failed. I refuse to give you the power to humiliate me.”
Also: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Garments could be taken as payment for debt or penalty; but only the shirt (coat), not the cloak. To sue for somebody’s cloak was illegal, not least because if a defendant lost both shirt and cloak, they would be stark naked. Because of this, it is probably not intended to be understood literally. Jesus’ commandment here is more like a parable, like the story of Bishop Myriel in Les Miserables, who welcomes the shunned convict Jean Valjean with a feast set on his best silverware. When Valjean steals the silverware in the middle of the night and is caught, Myriel pretends that he gave Valjean the silver, and gives him also the candlesticks that he “forgot.”
Nevertheless, do not be fooled into thinking that we can soften or rationalize all these commands of Jesus and so be let off the hook. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus himself say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill… whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This sermon is Jesus’ first public speech that we hear in Matthew’s gospel. It is his inaugural address; it lays out the foundation of his teaching.
Throughout this sermon so far, Jesus has followed a formula: he has stated the law and affirmed it as good, and then expanded upon the law keeping the spirit of it, not just the letter. For example, “an eye for an eye” is a law given through Moses not to condone revenge, but to limit it. It was intended to restrict the use of violence to repay violence. Jesus takes the law a step further in God’s direction when he says “do not resist the evildoer,” commanding his disciples to reject any form of violence, even what is their right due under the law. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” is not just the last in a long line of impossible commands, it is the main thesis of this whole sermon.
If we read this sermon as a list of things we must do in order to be in good standing with God, we will forever find ourselves falling short. Instead, look to the preacher, the one who says, “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill…” Jesus is Immanuel—God-With-Us; and he is, like his Father in heaven, perfect. He preaches in this sermon about eschewing violence and not resisting evil, about being slapped, having one’s clothes taken, and being compelled to serve the Romans. At the conclusion of his own life, he makes his words concrete: he eschews violence (26.51-4), he does not resist evil (26.36-56; 21.12-14); he is struck (26.67); he has his garments taken (27.28, 35); and his cross is carried by one compelled by Roman order (27.52).
It is no accident that Jesus’ own death so neatly matches the pattern of his first sermon. He shows us that, in fact, these commands are not too far away from us; he himself does them, proving that they are within reach. To borrow the idea from Moses, we might say that he “goes up to heaven and gets them for us, so that we may hear and observe them.” Actually, he does not so much bring down the law as he brings down heaven itself.
What we miss so often in reading this sermon is that it is given in light of the reality that God’s own Son has come among us and that, in his own words, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (4.17) The kingdom of heaven is one in which anger has no place, where destructive human relationships cannot endure, in which there are no enemies, only neighbors. These are true not because God forbids them, but because they are not what God has intended for creation. Under God’s reign, these things are not expelled so much as they are healed; and Jesus’ message is that this reign has already begun, brought near by Immanuel.
This does not change the fact that life is still broken and messy, but it does remind us that the broken messiness is not the ultimate power, nor does it get the last word. These words of Jesus are not commandments so much as they are invitations to live in the light of God’s dawning reign. Bishop Myriel did not give Jean Valjean his candlesticks because Jesus commanded it, but because he had something so much greater than those silly candlesticks, something that could not be taken away, something that he wanted desperately to share even with the man who had stolen from him: the joy of God’s grace.
In this sermon, Jesus is not merely laying out more rules to follow, he is describing what the reign of God looks like and inviting us to participate in it. When he says, “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” he’s not imposing an impossible standard for us to follow, he is offering us a gift. “Perfect” is, ironically, an imperfect translation of the word used by Jesus. The word in Greek means to be whole or complete or finished. It is Matthew’s Greek translation of the Hebrew word used in often in the Old Testament to describe what God requires of the Israelites: namely, that they serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in their loyalty and devotion to the One God, just as God’s own self is one.
When Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, he does not mean he has come to do it for us so we don’t have to, but rather that he has come to bring the law to perfection—wholeness—in us. “Be perfect” describes what God is doing to us: God perfects us—God makes us whole and complete, unafraid and unbound by the fear of anything that might happen to us or be asked of us because we know that we share in Christ’s resurrection. For us to “be perfect,” then, simply means to live out the reality of who we already are: we are children of our heavenly Father.
Jesus’ commands in this sermon are unreasonable and violate common sense because they point to another reality—the reality of God’s impending reign. What Jesus describes here is not what we must do in order to fulfill the spirit of God’s law; it is the Spirit of God’s law that is bestowed upon us, placed on our lips and written on our hearts at our baptism: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge of fear of the LORD, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.
Jesus is telling us what God is doing for us, not what we need to do for God. His commandments are a challenge and an invitation to trust in what God is already doing, to lean into God’s reign. He has shown us what awaits those who do these things: though it cost him his life, he rose to eternal life—life that he now shares with us. What he has given us so abundantly cannot be lost. To borrow a line from an old, familiar hymn: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse; though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”*
*The line is from Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46