Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Date: Epiphany VII + 2/20/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
What do you say when someone asks you, “How are you”? Do you just say, “Fine,” whether you really are fine or not? An instructor in early college days once responded to the question, “How are you,” with the words, “Perfect, Just Perfect.” That struck us as being at least a little over-the-top. So from then on (behind his back) we referred to him as “Perfect Schultz.”
In today’s Gospel Jesus concludes this section of the Sermon on the Mount saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To those whom our Lord Jesus Christ has called to follow Him, to be His disciples, that is, to you who have been baptized into Christ, He has given you a brand new identity. And it is “perfect.” You are as salt and light in the world as sons and daughters of the kingdom of God. Yet that identity is hidden for now in our daily life so that we do not appear to others as particularly impressive, successful or “perfect.” Rather Jesus describes what He makes of us in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” those who know their need of God; “blessed are those who mourn,” who know that the real culprit behind our need is sin. The third Beatitude describes us, saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5). “Meek” means lowly, gentle or humble. Preaching on the Sermon on the Mount this time around, I have found myself to be more humbled than ever, taking to heart the Law Jesus addresses here. We more gladly go along with “poor in spirit.” It’s a little more difficult to understand how mourning can at all be a blessing. But today there seems an almost impossibly thin line between meekness that does not retaliate against evil and loves and prays for the evil-doer on the one hand, and just turning into an easy mark, gullible, a pushover, a patsy, a wimp on the other. A right understanding of this happens as we discover in these two examples of the law of retaliation and the law of love the echoes of our Lord’s own, ultimate work on the cross. There, after the striking and stripping and suffering, when Jesus declared the completion of the gift of salvation with the words, “It is finished,” we discover our own finishing touches as we reflect His perfect love in our world today.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This was an important legal concept from even before its mention in the Bible (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21). For one thing it enforced preventing over-doing penalties, making sure that the punishment “fit” the crime. For another thing it treated everyone the same, preventing discrimination on the basis of race or status in the community or other such issues. Beyond that, however, it also accurately describes our grudging attitude for keeping score, even though the liturgy has us often repeat the words of Psalm 130, “If you, O Lord, should keep a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (v 3). It seems though the Lord doesn’t keep a record, we sure do! How many have not heard the rewording of the Golden Rule which Jesus will shortly express in the Sermon, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12 paraphrased), as, rather, “Do unto others before they do unto you”? This was also how some teachers in Jesus’ day were treating this subject. Jesus’ response, “But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil” is His radical call to sacrificial faith.
That call is centered in nothing else but the cross of Christ. As He describes the slapping on the cheek we recall the scene before Caiaphas when “they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’” (Mt 26:67-68). Even more pointedly we recall His remaining silent before His accusers as Isaiah’s “sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:6-7). The taking of your tunic and forced service calls to mind the guards stripping Him of His clothes and gambling for His tunic and His agonizing, staggering walk to the Place of the Skull. Yet these are not words calling us merely to imitate Jesus’ outward sufferings, but to defeat abuse and evil by absorbing it into Christ’s atoning death, a quiet submission. The blessed meek do not keep score and refuse to participate in the game of demanding vengeance and personal “rights.” Blessed are the meek.
The final example of the Law Jesus says He came not to abolish but to fulfill is the law of love. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” But have you ever heard that? Well, not from the Bible! But in a sense you don’t have to hear it because that’s the rule we come up with all on our own. It’s quite natural to “love those who love you” and “greet only your brothers.” “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
For how many people did Jesus die and bring the forgiveness of sins? John the Baptist announced Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin…of the world! This is the love of God, “the love of intelligence and corresponding purpose,” the love that sees a need and rushes to meet that need regardless of whether the person in need is necessarily very loveable at all. Jesus died as much for Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the high priest, the Roman soldier who drove the nails through His hands as for you or me. And He prayed for His enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” even as they cast lots to divide his garments, scoffed at him and mocked him (Lk 23:34-36). Again, the issue is not so much to imitate Jesus as if imitation will gain some reward but rather that Jesus living in you transforms you to the blessed meekness that always keeps in mind and reflects God’s love to both the evil and the good, the just and the unjust.
Now as if the command of non-resistance and love even for our enemies doesn’t seem hard enough, we come back to Jesus’ challenging words with which He concludes this entire section, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” They are challenging words, that is, only because our fallen, sinful nature hears them as commanding our performance of the Law. For the keeping of God’s Law even partially much less “perfectly” is totally beyond our reach and ability. As the scripture says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified” (Rom 3:20), and, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). It is according to our common, daily experience expressed so well by St. Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:15, 18-19). So what does our Lord mean, “you must be perfect”?
Remember that this is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is addressing us, His disciples not as a new Moses laying down the old or a new law, but as the Savior who, in His fulfilling of God’s Law on our behalf, for us, is telling us of our new identity by faith in Him. We are the blessed who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are considered meek. In that God-given poverty, brutal honesty and humble lowliness, “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:10). And God’s workmanship is perfect, complete in every way.
Our salvation is complete in every way but one as we await the resurrection. But that, as they say, is “in the bag.” And that’s what Jesus meant when He uttered The Last Word from His Cross: “It is finished.” You should find it more than interesting, then, to discover that this is the same word uttered here translated as “You must be perfect,” complete, finished, His workmanship. You know that this declared perfection has nothing to do with causing our salvation, but reflecting the complete work of God in bringing us to repentance and faith and new life in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So now, how are you…spiritually? It can be said and sung with joy, “Perfect. Just Perfect.”