Text: Matthew 5:33-48
Date: Epiphany VII + 2/23/14
Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. We have been hearing our Lord Jesus Christ revealing that light, the gospel, the heart of God’s good and wise Law in His words on this mountain. Today He leaves us with the challenge “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word He uses here doesn’t mean flawless or sinless, however. Teleioi. It is the same word He will use as His last word on the cross, tetelestai, “it is finished” (John 19:30). So here He is saying of you, you must be finished, completed, made whole. It is the present tense of our daily sanctification just as St. Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses the same word when he encourages us saying, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-2). So today Jesus is speaking about your new person, the new Adam which is perfect because it is the perfect Christ living in you.
In the Sermon on the Mount the first three examples of how Christ fulfills the Law of God began with the words, first, “You have heard that it was said to those of old,” then, “You have heard that it was said,” and then finally, simply, “It was also said.” So the second three examples begin the same way. First the full statement, “You have heard that it was said to those of old,” the Law of oath taking. Then, “You have heard that it was said,” the Law of retaliation. And finally, “You have heard that it was said,” the Law of love.
Christ is the revealer and perfecter of the Law of oath taking which was quite a serious thing back in the day. But is it any less serious today? How many when asked, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” say “I do” either through a pure heart or clenched teeth? From listening to conversations in the public square you could easily conclude these days that no one takes anyone’s word or promises seriously anymore. The word “spin” describes the way a person can change or even deny the original meaning of a word. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution promises, among other things, freedom of religion. It’s as if it says, “If you like your religion, you can keep your religion”! But when you put it that way these days it makes you wonder. How different from Muslim countries or those with state churches. From the tenor of the anti-Christian sentiments increasingly expressed these days one wonders how long we can keep that promise, the Bill of Rights notwithstanding.
But how about our own words and conversations? When we pile on the words, “I swear on a stack of Bibles,” or, “Cross my heart and hope to die,” doesn’t that somehow reveal that we really can’t be trusted with a simple “yes” or “no”? Rather, Christ gives His people the finishing touch of living humbly in His truth in order that we can be regarded as people of our word because we are people of God’s Word. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”
Christ is the perfecter of the Law of retaliation. Yes we have heard and even agree, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Punishment of evil should be proportionate to the crime. This remains true especially for the kingdom of the left hand, the civil government that has the God-given authority and responsibility to wield the sword, to reward good and punish evil. So let retaliation be the duty of those to whom it has been given. Christians, on the other hand, bring the light of Christ into play when we endure unfair treatment from others. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Have you ever been slapped on the cheek? (Good grief! I just remembered a public school teacher when I was in eighth grade actually slapping me on my face for making noise! Of course I didn’t do anything but sit there stunned. I guess teachers could get away with that back in the early 60s. But the anger that began to arise in me…well, I’ve never forgotten that.) These words remind Christians of our Lord’s suffering for us and for our salvation, as when He appeared before Caiaphas the high priest and “they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him” (Matt 26:67). What’s the connection, you ask? Ask the apostles in Acts chapter 5 who “left the presence of the council,” where they were arrested and imprisoned but miraculously freed from their captivity, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” “Blessed,” said Jesus, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you,” not because you deserved it or misbehaved or sinned in some way but “falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12). In other words to endure suffering in the face of evil puts you in fellowship with some mighty weighty company!
Finally, Christ is the perfecter of the law of love. St. Paul wrote, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). If God so loved us when we were spiritually blind, dead and enemies of God, so how much more can Christ living in you still love your enemies and those who persecute you? This is how you show you are “sons of your Father who is in heaven” who still “so loves the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” Now that love can be shown at times as patient forgiveness, supplying someone’s need, or even civil disobedience. But sometimes it is also “tough love,” that is, doing or saying what needs to be done in order to truly be of help to the person in need. (I still don’t think that teacher who slapped me had my benefit in mind!)
Perfect? Finished. Completed. Currently and continually His workmanship, God putting the finishing touches on you as you live the life of faith as His son or daughter. I’ve always turned these final words around so that it comes out like this. You belong to God? Your heavenly Father is perfect. If He is your Father, then, you must be perfect!