I am sorry again for the long wait in between posts but this is a sermon I gave two Sundays ago:
Well, there it is. Be perfect. I don’t think Jesus could be any clearer. You just gotta want it. You gotta try harder. You have to do more. Be perfect.
LONG AWKWARD PAUSE…
Oh… you uh didn’t start the hymn… I suppose you were expecting a little more… I guess should say something…
The truth is that this verse, this command to be perfect, makes my stomach churn. It is frightening, monumental and downright impossible. I suppose I should have seen it coming as Jesus has spent a good many verses tightening loopholes. Last week we heard that anger, a wandering eye and divorce were all out. And just in case you made that first cut, Jesus adds more this week, do not retaliate when you are wronged but instead love your enemy. And of course the grand finale to cap it all off “Be perfect”….
I think Jesus must have taken a nap after helping to create the world. He obviously missed the bulk of human history up to this point; a history fraught with war, avarice, lust, anger and death. Even the people of Israel despite receiving God’s divine law, the Torah, have consistently wandered away, doing their own thing, having little or no regard for God. Moral perfection was not even in the equation. So either Jesus is naïve or something else is going on here…
As we look at the text in Leviticus we find that it bears some similarity to the words in Matthew. God declares through Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” God’s chosen people are to be holy and emulate the holiness of their God. However, for the Israelites the word “holy” was not strictly relegated to the concept of morality but was more broadly used to describe something or someone as “set apart” or “different” from the world around them. Moses is reminding God’s people that they were set free from Egypt for a purpose to be “holy”, to be set apart and actively involved in God’s work in the world; in the work of a God that is holy, that is different, a God that is interested not in conquest and subjugation but in peace, in establishing Shalom. The Israelites were called out of Egypt, out of slavery to live not for themselves but in a radically different, in a holy way, to partner with God in establishing justice and peace.
So as we look again at Matthew we see Jesus doing much the same thing. He is calling his followers to live in a community that is set apart… that is “holy” so to speak. It is a community that does not allow anger to become a divisive force. It is a community that promotes and encourages healthy and life giving relationships. It is a community that values honesty and integrity. He is saying: you are set apart and these are your trademarks, the things that define who you are to be. In this way perfection or holiness is to be understood as wholeness. As things that build up the community.
Alright, that makes sense but what about this text for today? How does it support community?
Are we really supposed to allow people to strike our face without resistance? Are we to let them walk all over us like a doormat, let them take all of our things and boss us around? Do we really have to pray for and love these people? I am no sociological expert but to me these commands seem to advocating for a sort of victim mentality. How healthy can this community be if perpetrators are not held accountable?! How is that perfection?!
Consider these words from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
This is what Jesus intends when he advocates for these non-violent responses. In offering your left cheek it meant that the aggressor would have to use their right hand to strike you with a backhand and in so doing defiling their hand or slap you with an open palm with the left which in that day was a sign of equality. Either way the aggressor loses their place of dominance. Similarly if someone were to sue you for your coat and your cloak you would essentially be rendered naked, and it was a great dishonor in that day to see someone’s nakedness. The dishonor would be doubled by the fact that they had caused your nakedness. These methods are used to demonstrate to those in power that their abuses and attempts to control are undignified, dehumanizing and most importantly do not define those whom they victimize. They change the conversation bringing about tension that leads to dialogue to honest conversation and in time a change for the better. It is Jesus who uses this to greatest effect, allowing us to beat him, to mock him and nail him to a cross so that we may realize just how ugly and terrible our quest for power and control had become. Jesus allowed himself to be crucified to demonstrate that we have no interest in mercy, in weakness. We would destroy it if we could and that we would kill God’s own Son to do it. What’s more he prays for us “forgive them father for they no not what they do” and continues to love us saying to the disciples after the resurrection “Peace be with you”. The perfection of God is God’s perfect love demonstrated in Christ. We are shown our sin, shown our ugliness but loved anyway, loved perfectly.
Now as we look to our own lives I don’t envision a cross in anyone’s immediate future. Even if we were called to it I don’t think we can love perfectly as Jesus did.
In the end I think the “perfection”, the “holiness” Jesus is talking about is not some moral perfection or some glorious blaze of martyrdom but it is living in the joy that God’s love is perfect, that our relationship with him is not contingent on our own ability to achieve perfection. Rather we are made holy, made perfect by Christ’s perfect love for us. And in our new found holiness, we are set apart to share that perfect love. That perfect love calls us to lift up what is weak and lowly to shame what is strong.
That perfect love empowers us to demonstrate that the systems of dominance and control do not define a person’s worth.
That perfect love illuminates our way and shows that hate and bitterness and oppression are not the way and that God has made for us a new way in Jesus.
That perfect love reminds us to live in the promise that we are loved perfectly by a God that will not let us go. That will not forsake us.
I must admit this verse “Be perfect” is still unsettling…but maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it should make me a little uncomfortable with myself and the world I live in. Maybe it should remind me that I am holy, set apart for the sake of the gospel. But I know that it also reminds us of a perfect and holy God who wholly and perfectly loves us. Amen.