Be Perfect

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Leviticus 19:1-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, The only way to pay someone back for a crime against you is to attack them so much, hit them so hard, that they can never be a threat to you again.

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, kick them in the gut and knock the wind out of them; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, you counter-sue them so hard that you walk away with their coat, their car, their house, and their savings; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, break their legs, so they can never walk again.

Don’t give anything to someone begging on the street—you’re only enabling them, they’re just going to buy drugs or booze, and there’s already plenty of help available to them in the next town over. And if someone wants to borrow from you, tell them, “Tough, I’m not a bank.”

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, That’s not enough. Don’t just hate your enemy. Vilify them. Demonize them. Drop bombs on their schools and hospitals and then claim moral superiority, because you’re not the murderers, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, but loves you more; and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, but who cares, because other people don’t matter.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Their approval, of course, which is all that’s important. Your tribe is better than those Muslims or blacks or gays. And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? You’re affirming your identity and superiority, shutting yourself off from the rest of the world, as you should.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It would be a lot easier to be perfect if Jesus just asked us mainline Protestant American Christians to do what we’re already doing. Perfection is easy when we don’t have to change our world view, our mindset, our assumptions, or challenge ourselves in any way. Perfection is easy when society and culture can consider us “nice” little additions to the predominant civil religion.

I assure you, Jesus’s words are no more or less challenging than they were when he said them. I have said over and over that in the 10,000-years of recorded human history, we haven’t really changed at all.

Jesus’s disciples would have followed the same sort of “eye for an eye” system of retributive justice that is the basis of our criminal law, too. They would have strongly resisted an evildoer, especially the Roman military occupation force that ruled over their homeland. They would have loved their neighbors and hated their enemies—again, those pesky Romans—and done so gladly. One of Jesus’s disciples, after all, was Simon the Zealot, a terrorist who fought against the Romans. Peter had to be chastised for cutting off someone’s ear when the police came to arrest Jesus.

So for Jesus to tell his disciples to not resist an evildoer, to turn the other cheek, to give up their coat off their back, to walk the extra mile, to give to anyone who begged from their, and to love their enemies; well, you can imagine the confusion that would cause.

This morning’s Gospel reading is not an isolated teaching of Jesus, but a part of his Sermon on the Mount. This is the same sermon that says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder’; but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.

And then we get to today’s reading, and the sermon continues on after this. But today, we end with this command: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

That is no small command, “be perfect”. And we generally look to two different ways of interpreting this command from Jesus.

The first is to just come out and say that Jesus didn’t actually mean what he said. Jesus didn’t really mean that we had to be perfect. You can’t take the words that Jesus says seriously,  you have to understand what he means in his heart. I strongly hesitate to take this position because it makes us question everything else Jesus has said and makes us doubt our perceptions, which is the very definition of gaslighting–and I very highly doubt Jesus is gaslighting us.

A second typical way of looking at this command of Jesus is to say that, yes, Jesus was serious when he said “Be perfect”. But Jesus also knew that we can never be perfect, so the purpose of telling us to be perfect is to show us how far short we fall and compel us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and ask for forgiveness. Which is not a bad thing—we should be asking God for forgiveness far more often than once a week on Sunday morning.

But the main reason both of these interpretations fall short is that they allow us to hear the words of Jesus, work around them, and change nothing. We’re pretty darn good at twisting Jesus’s words and commands to mean we don’t have to do anything. We may not distort them as severely as I did at the beginning of this sermon (and I hope you realized early on that I was distorting Jesus’s words), but the effect is the same: we conform Jesus to our ideas of who we already are, make him validate our own beliefs, and then go home quite content that we’ve already achieved perfection.

But there’s a question that hasn’t really been asked yet, and I think it’s important to ask it if we hope to be able to take Jesus at his word and live by it. And that’s this: what does it mean to be perfect?

You already heard this morning that perfect is not always we assume it means. Samantha’s gift* to me wasn’t perfect because it was the best constructed, or the best color palette, or the best handwriting. It was perfect because it was for me, from her, to show me how much she appreciated my time in her congregation. Perfect doesn’t always mean flawless.

Indeed, the language of our reading this morning supports this. The Greek word used, telos can mean perfect, like moral perfection, but actually better means, “reaching the intended target” or “being what one is supposed to be”. So an arrow fired from a bow that hits the bullseye is telos, perfect. An apple tree that produces fruit in its season is telos, perfect. A gift given from the heart in love to someone is telos, perfect.

So what if we took Jesus seriously in this way? What if instead of saying “Be morally flawless, therefore, as your Father in heaven is morally flawless,” Jesus is saying, “Be who you were intended to be, therefore, as your Father in heaven is intended to be.” Or, “Produce the good fruit that it’s your entire being to produce, therefore, as your Father in heaven produces the good fruit that it’s God’s entire being produce?”

And how does God show us what God’s telos looks like? In the person of Jesus Christ. For when the world thought that God’s perfection was in God’s “fairness” (there’s no such thing as God’s fairness, by the way), or in God’s perfect accounting of sins and passing out of judgment, God showed what it meant to be perfect through acts of love. On the cross, God demonstrated what it meant to be telos through self-sacrifice, dying for those God loves (including God’s enemies, the ones who betrayed Jesus, put him on trial, and killed him). In this way, God proved what it meant to be perfect.

Now that’s a different way of looking at it. Yes, we are still told who is blessed, and it’s still not the people we would expect. Yes, we are still commanded not to commit murder, and even hating someone or being angry with them is murder. Yes, we are still commanded not to commit adultery, and that even looking at another person with lust is committing adultery. Yes, we are still commanded not to resist and evildoer, to turn the other cheek, to give up our coat, to walk the extra mile, to give to everyone who begs, to love our enemies. But no longer is this an extra burden placed on us. Instead, it’s an invitation, a plea, to be who God knows we are: beloved children of God, those who produce good fruit because that’s who we are.

It doesn’t mean it’s easy. The call this morning especially to love our enemies is particularly difficult. When everyone from “the media”, to immigrants, to refugees, to non-whites, to Muslims, to non-heterosexual and transgender people, to political opponents, to our own neighbors are called our enemies, it makes us increasingly scared. And that doesn’t include people everyone would agree are our enemies, such as terrorists, foreign spies, traitors. I imagine that finding ways to love the very people who want to kill us is one of the most difficult paths a Christian can walk.

But walk it we should, and walk it we must, not because we are commanded, but because it’s who we are. It’s our telos. It’s who God is, and we as God’s children have it in our blood, in our being, to be the same.

Featured Image: “Smack in the Middle” by Eran Sandler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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