Be Perfect | 7th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (CEB)

Be Perfect

In a society where everything seems to be based on the dynamics of raw power, the one with the strongest fists, the most guns, or most advanced military wins. Instead of the Golden Rule of Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, the ethic in our world sounds more like a Sylvester Stalone line from the movie Oscar, where Snaps Provolone says “Do unto others before others do unto you.” For some people in power positions, it means, If others do anything bad to you, finish them off before they do anything else to you.

Often times it seems that the “Golden Rule” should, instead, say, The person with the most gold makes the rules. The people with power order the world so that it benefits themselves, so they can gain more power. This kind of survival-of-the-richest environment was as real in the ancient world as it is today.

As with our text last Sunday, in the reading for this morning, Jesus interprets the law and suggests an adjustment in our understanding of faithful living within it. People have long understood the language in the law, “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound” (Exodus 21:23-25, CEB). as permission to do unto others as they have done unto us. What we often fail to see that the law of Moses was a mitigating and moderating force against the all-out, no-holds-barred retaliation that often took place in the ancient world.

If someone knocked your tooth out, you aren’t commanded by the law to go knock their tooth out, rather you are restrained by the law to only go as far as knocking out their tooth in retaliation. In other words, you can’t kill someone if they knock out your tooth. This is obviously how Jesus interpreted the law—in terms of restraint—when he says, “But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:39-42 CEB).

At least for me, I can understand these words on a purely academic level, but to get past the academics to real life application, this boggles my mind. How do we even think about living out these things in our lives today? These expectations seem more than a little crazy. Imagine a Christian in Posey County—or anywhere for that matter—who gets up one morning and decides to do what Jesus teaches here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the wanted amount. This person would be broke, homeless, and in the Emergency Room at Deaconess Hospital. So, what are we to do with Jesus’ teaching here?

One way we can think about this is to see how Jesus provides a strategy for robbing violent and oppressive people of their power. As a hypothetical situation, say a supporter of a dictator punches a protestor and the protestor retaliates by trying to hit back. It’s then that the dictator and their supporters have won because they’ve established violence as the agenda and have the protestors reacting on their terms.

But what if the protestor, after being punched, should stand there firmly and offer the dictator’s thug their other cheek, as if to say, You may like violence, but you are not in control. I choose another way, a way of nonviolence. You can hit me, but I’m not going anywhere.

The turning of the other cheek shows that, while cruel people may do violence, they do not have the power to take away the dignity and humanity of other people. Nonviolence is the kind of resistance that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached because it’s the kind of resistance that Jesus preached.

This leads us to another way of understanding these words of Jesus: as good news that in God’s new creation there will be no violence. No one will have to stockpile weapons or carry a can of pepper spray. People won’t have to put deadbolts on the doors of their homes or set the alarms on their security systems to protect their loved ones and possessions from thieves. In fact, people won’t want to lock up their belongings at all because we’ll want to share all that we have with others.

Lawyers and judges and people who file lawsuits will be a thing of the past (as well, I might add, as preachers and church committee meetings!). No one will resist a neighbor because no one will need to. This is the way things will be in the kingdom of heaven: God’s will, perfectly lived. All these things Jesus says here that seem so crazy and difficult, will be the norm.

Then, we come to Jesus’ teaching on love. The law of Moses says to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). And as long as we get to choose who our neighbor is, this is a pretty easy thing to do. You see, the law doesn’t say anything about not hating our enemies. In fact, many religious people interpreted the law in such a way that they felt that they were allowed to hate certain people. The law says that we have to love our neighbor…okay, so I can love the people who live next door, and even the family down the street a ways, but I can be hateful toward my non-neighbors. If I can pick and choose my neighbors, I like this law. It’s easy.

In the neighborhood where I grew up back in Evansville there were people we didn’t like. One family, in particular, was troublesome. I don’t think we hated them, but we definitely didn’t like them. Their kids were mean. The older boy was a few years older than me, the daughter was a year older than me (and she could beat up boys), and the younger boy was about 2 years younger than me. All three of them did really mean and hurtful things to other kids in the neighborhood, and more than once beat other kids up. Thankfully I was never one of them. It was not easy to like those people, let alone love them. They are the reason people put those bumper stickers on their cars that say “Mean People Suck.” So, does it really mean that I have to consider that family as my neighbors?

Well, like it or not, yeah it does. The heart of the law, as Jesus interprets it, is to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The reason we ought to do this is because this is how God acts toward us, and we—who were God’s enemies—have become God’s children precisely because God loved us. God doesn’t hate the person or people that we call our enemy. In fact, the good gifts that we have in life—the sun, the rain—these things are lavished upon everyone. Eternal life itself is just as available to our enemies as it is to us. If we only love those who love us, then we’re no different from the rest of the world. Jesus tells us that even the people of his culture who were vilified as enemies of God—the sinners and tax collectors—loved those who loved them. If we’re only nice to people who are nice to us, how are we any different from the people we think are evil? What differentiates us from the people who are not Christians? If we want to be like God, if we want to imitate God, then we need to love our enemies and love those who hate us.

So how can we live today in the light of this kingdom that is defined by Jesus’ teachings? First, I think we need to move past the idea of justice as fair play, as in If you do this to me, then I’m doing the same thing back at you. Instead, we need to ask, If someone does something evil to me, how can I respond with only good in return? Now, the idea is not, of course, to be a victim and say, “Thank you, Sir, may I have another?” (c.f. Animal House). Rather, the idea is to be a human being created in God’s image, and ultimately, to be a blessing even to those who would do violence to us.

In Jesus’ day, living the kingdom meant opening one’s coin purse to the village beggar. In our day, it might mean working for programs or ministries which provide jobs for those who need work, or supporting safe shelters for those who need housing, or food for the hungry, and community mental health services for those whose minds are diseased.

In Jesus’ day, living the kingdom meant not swinging back when you were slapped, and showing that you refrained from fighting back out of love rather than cowardice. In our day, it might mean angry words that are spoken in our homes or on the streets are met with words of compassion and not fists of aggression.

The call to live in the Kingdom is a call to perfection. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an A+ on every test. We’re all going to mess up, probably royally at least once a day. Perfection is about wholeness, being consumed by love, and desiring the holiness of God. To be perfect is to respond to other people—even our enemies—with love and compassion, even a desire for our enemies to receive good things from God’s hand. John Wesley talked about Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. And he didn’t believe that Jesus would give us a commandment that we would not be able to fulfill: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect. Now perfection might look like it’s a long way off for the majority of us. But the question isn’t, Are we there yet? Rather, the question is, Are we moving on to perfection? Are we on your way? Are we seeking ways to live life in the Kingdom of heaven here on earth? Are we trying to connect with God in such a way that our life becomes a source of grace to the world around you; even to our enemies?

Are we moving on to perfection? John Wesley was fond of that question, and he often asked it to Methodists. If we’re serious about our Christian Faith, then perhaps the only way we can answer is by saying, “With God’s help, I am.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


You Have Heard It was Said | 6th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.

31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35 You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36 And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one. (CEB)

You Have Heard It was Said

When I read this text, I can’t help but ask a question. How are Christians to understand and relate to the Jewish law? This is an ancient question that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Matthew 5:21-37 follows on the heels of Jesus stating that he didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). In this text, Jesus is an interpreter of the law. Rather than saying, I’m going to cast the law aside and give you a completely new law, Jesus is saying, Here is what the law says, and I’m going to get to the heart of that law to show how the children of the kingdom of heaven live out its deepest meaning.

The first thing Jesus tackles here is anger. The law condemns murder, but at the heart of this law is respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God. Jesus says, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘you fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And when I read this I admit I immediately think of Master Yoda’s quote to Anakin Skywalker when Yoda sensed that he feared losing his mother. Anakin responds to Yoda by saying, “What’s that got to do with anything?” And Yoda replies, “Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Jesus and Master Yoda are both right on here. While anger is a part of being human, it can consume the one who is angry and consume those toward whom that anger is directed. Similarly, if a person is angry and flings curses at a brother or sister they are saying, at least in that moment of fury, I wish you were dead.

Now, this language is tough, but does it mean that if I lose my temper at a church meeting and unload on some poor soul across the table that I’m going to burn in the everlasting fires of hell? No, I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. Jesus mentions that those who become angry will be liable to the judgment, the council, and the hell of fire. So, it might help if we understand what judgment is in the Biblical sense. We always hear about judgment in the negative but the Biblical reality of judgment is that it is a good thing: it is God’s exercise of good judgment, repairing the brokenness of creation.

Judgment is God’s scalpel carefully removing the malignant tissue that threatens life. Judgment is God’s burning away of all that is cruel and spiritually broken in order that we may breathe the air of compassion. Judgment is good news; it’s God setting things right. And when God sets things right there is no room for murder. In fact, there’s no room for murderous words or vicious deeds. Jesus goes on to say that if we come to worship (literally, offer your gift at the altar) and we remember that someone has something against us, it ought to be a matter of concern. And, we should do everything in our power to heal that breach in the relationship.

Then, Jesus talks about lust. If raw anger toward another moves toward saying, I wish you were dead, then lust toward another person’s spouse or someone who’s unmarried moves toward saying, I wish you were mine. Marriages in the Christian community should strive, through the faithfulness between husband and wife, to be expressions of the faithfulness that God demonstrates toward the world. Adultery, obviously, breaks the bond of faithfulness. Lustful desire contemplates—is thinking about—that kind of break and is therefore the first step in that direction.

The law forbids adultery because it invades and destroys the marriage covenant. Jesus goes to the heart of the law by his word against lust. In our erotically charged society, where even car and fast food commercials are filled with provocative innuendos, Jesus reminds us that such playfulness is not always harmless. Jesus speaks to our basic attitudes and choices about what we allow to take root in our imaginations: things that shape our thoughts, govern our actions, and mold our relationships. Lust is covetousness at the heart of a person. Lust considers breaking a marriage covenant with thoughts and imaginings that are just this side of action.

On the matter of divorce, the law specified a divorce procedure: if a man found something objectionable about his wife, he could write her a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. This law assumes a male-dominated world where men are in charge and make the decisions about whether or not their wives are welcome in the home. The law, as it stands in Deuteronomy put one constraint on divorce. The requirement to write a certificate of divorce gave a small measure of protection to the woman because it certified that she had been divorced by her husband and allowed her to remarry without any suspicion of adultery. So, we have to look at this divorce law in its own social context, which is an ancient patriarchal culture in which a wife was seen as the legal property of the husband.

Jesus assumes that divorce is always initiated by men. His teaching on the matter says there is no divorce procedure a man can follow that will leave him with clean hands. To abandon his wife, with or without a certificate, is to treat her as worthless (which is the effect of the phrase, “causes her to commit adultery”). Jesus clearly speaks to forbid divorce, with the only exception being a Greek word, porneia, the meaning of which is not very clear. It could refer to almost any form of sexual deviation, but in this context it most likely means adultery. The main point is that Jesus allows no room for the practice of divorce in his own culture where divorce was an assault on the value of women, an abuse of power, and a trivializing of faithful commitments.

So how do we receive Jesus’ words today? Hardly any family is untouched by divorce. Is divorce outside the bounds of the Christian faith? Is remarriage forbidden by the Sermon on the Mount?

Even in our divorce saturated culture, in most instances, marriage is taken quite seriously. Divorce is a serious and sometimes tragic matter. Even though about half of all marriages end in divorce, not many of them end easily. Rather, they usually end with great cost, much pain, and deep wounds. Some people, to be sure, leave their marriages casually. But most of the divorced people I know have left their marriages behind because they had to. What do the words of Jesus mean for our divorced family and friends?

Now, before I go any further, there is something that we need to acknowledge. We need to understand that neither the law about divorce nor Jesus’ teaching on it can be imported into our modern culture and applied exactly as it was back then. It simply won’t work. There are too many differences in culture and values. Even the word divorce as used by the law and by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean the same thing that it means today.

In the ancient world, divorce would be similar to what we would call abandonment—where someone simply walked out or, as it would have been done back then, the man threw the woman out and locked the door. In modern nations where the Christian church has been a major factor, divorce laws have been changed to make abandonment illegal. In other words, most contemporary divorce laws have been affected, to some degree, by the Sermon on the Mount. The kind of divorce that Jesus is talking about is not same kind of divorce that happens today, though the result of both is a broken marital covenant. Abandonment is not legal in our country, but that’s exactly what divorce was back then.

One important thing we can do is to discern what lies at the heart of Jesus’ words, just as Jesus discerned what lay at the heart of the law. Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people whose mutual fidelity expresses the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honor for the two people in the marriage covenant and for their children. In Jesus’ day, the customs and practices of divorce were a direct assault on these values. Today, however, it is sometimes an ironic fact that a hopelessly broken marriage can be an assault upon those very values of communion, fidelity, safety, nurture, and honor. A marriage can become distorted. It can betray its intended purposes and become a place where people are in physical, emotional, or mental danger, where they are tragically dishonest and mutually destructive.

I think Jesus’ words on divorce were spoken to preserve the value of the people involved in marriages, especially the more vulnerable women. So, when a marriage becomes the very arena in which people are destroying each other or where one is suffering abuse from the other, it’s appropriate to ask how the safety, well-being, and honor of the marriage partners can best be preserved. This means we should exercise compassion toward people in these situations and not merely defend the institution of marriage as if it is more sacred than the people involved. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage. The people in the marriage are what we should value most.

Finally, Jesus discusses oaths. People in the ancient world would invoke the name of God in order to make the vow or promise they were making more solemn. Remnants of this old practice remain today when witnesses in courts of law are pledged to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The Jewish law condemns false oaths, where a person would promise something in the name of God and not do it. Some have argued that what Jesus is against here is swear words. But, while Jesus might not have approved of uncouth language, common profanity is not the main subject here.

The real issue has to do with what it means to utter the name of God. In the ancient world, a person’s name was bound up with their identity, with their essence. To utter a person’s name was to, in some way, call up their identity. For instance, when Moses asked God what God’s name is, he wasn’t asking for information, he was asking for a more intimate relationship. And God responded with a name that is really impossible to capture in translation, something like, “I AM WHO I AM.” There is something about God’s name itself that slips from the grasp of human language. We can use God’s name to call upon God and find ourselves in God’s presence, but even when we name God we name a mystery; we name the One whom we do not and cannot fully know: I AM WHO I AM. God enters into relationship with us, but is always beyond our control.

So, what was happening in Jesus’ day that led Jesus to speak against all swearing of oaths? It’s possible that instead of calling upon God’s name in to experience God’s holy and mysterious presence, people were using the name of God in such a way that they arrogantly assumed that God could be controlled, domesticated, harnessed to pull whatever wagon they wanted to ride. People were invoking God’s name as a way of legitimizing their personal agendas.

I think Jesus is reminding us that we do not control God, so don’t swear at all. Instead, we should simply be a people of truth. When we say “yes” we should mean “yes”; when we say “no” we should mean “no.” “Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” I mean, if we have to swear an oath in order to make ourselves sound more authentic or believable, we’re probably not a very truthful and honest person to begin with.

How are Christians to relate to the law? The teaching of Jesus is not simplistic or easy but, as the Son of God, it is his interpretation of the law that we listen to. Jesus really does dig deep and examine the spirit of the matter. It makes us think. For some of these things there is no easy or cut-and-dry answer, it takes serious study and some real wrestling with the matters at hand. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to teach us about the law’s heart. His teaching shows us how to live and reveals what we should value: things like fidelity, truth and—probably most importantly—each other.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!