Jesus concludes His words for us in today’s Gospel lesson with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Should my message for this morning then, be, “Just like God, go and be perfect. Amen”? Is that what Jesus is telling us?
As good Lutherans and students of God’s Word, the answers to those questions should be obvious! We know that we’re not perfect and while it’s true that God’s Holy Spirit is at work daily to perfect those who repent for sin and trust in the crucified and risen Jesus as their God, even the most mature disciples of Jesus must confess with the apostle Paul that for now “...we see only a reflection as in a mirror...” [1 Corinthians 13:12] That’s why, when we gather in God’s presence each week, we confess our sins, acknowledging that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
So, what do we make of Jesus’ words?
First of all, when Jesus says, in verse 48 of our gospel lesson that we are to be perfect as God the Father is perfect, the word translated as perfect is, in the Greek in which Matthew wrote his gospel, τέλειοι. This is an adjective that can mean perfect, but which also can mean full-grown, complete, consummated.
Jesus uses a related verb, Τετέλεσται, “It is finished,” when He draws His last breath from the cross in John 19:30.
And Paul uses this same related verb when, in speaking of his ministry about to be ended by his own death, he says in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have finished the race.”
Jesus may then be saying, "Reflect the wholeness of God in how you live." God's grace has accomplished or finished its saving work by making you and me part of God's kingdom through Jesus and our faith in Jesus.
Many scholars believe that when Jesus tells us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, He’s echoing words that appear repeatedly in the Old Testament: “...be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45).
To be holy is to be set apart, different from the rest of the world, weird even. The holy, those saved by God's grace, are to reflect the goodness of God in the way that we live.
Why is that?
Remember that earlier in the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s Gospel lesson is taken, Jesus tells us to be salt and light for the world.
This is what you and I as believers in Jesus Christ, people set free from sin and death by His cross and resurrection, are called to do each day: To let others see what God is like, to shine the light of the nations, Jesus, in all of our relationships.
Sounds great, does it? But there's a huge problem.
The fact is that if you set out to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” in your own power at noon today, you’ll fail before the clock hits 12:01.
Instead, if you and I are going to be God’s salt and light in the world, we must rely on the power and life that God unleashes in the lives of those who daily turn from sin and daily surrender to Christ.
Perfection, completeness, in Christ, is a byproduct of surrendered faith in Christ, not the result of our efforts.
Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 3. The way it’s rendered in The Message paraphrase of the Bible is particularly helpful: “Nothing between us and God [through faith in Christ], our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” [2 Corinthians 3:18]
To be perfect in the eyes of God then, is to be surrendered to Jesus and so allow God’s perfection to be seen in us and experienced through us by others.
We become prisms through which Jesus, the light of the world, is poured onto the world.
In our gospel lesson today, through the use of exaggerated imagery, Jesus draws a picture of what those who are perfect as our Father is perfect look like. This is a picture of who we should aspire to be. This is who, through our faith relationship with Christ, the Holy Spirit is making us. So, let’s take a look at Jesus’ words for us this morning and learn better where Jesus is taking us.
Verse 38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
The Old Testament law and other ancient ethical systems said that when someone does wrong to us, the gravity of our response shouldn’t exceed what the other person has done to us. So, if someone insults us, our response shouldn’t be to shoot them. But Jesus goes even further: Don’t seek revenge at all, ever, under any circumstance. In these words, we begin to see just how weird holiness is, just how weird the perfection of God looks in a disciple.
Jesus goes on: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” In the first century world in which Jesus first spoke these words, a backhanded slap across the right cheek of another person was less an act of violence than a way of saying, “You’re a nobody. You're a loser. You're beneath contempt.” Jesus says that if someone does anything that labels us as a nobody or a loser, we prove our assailants wrong by refusing to react to their dehumanizing words or actions.
Verse 40: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” In ancient Judea, most people only had two garments, a shirt and a tunic. Jesus says to be willing to give both of them up. And in Roman-occupied Judea, a Roman could force a bystander to carry, say a cross, for a mile. It was a hated practice. But Jesus says that His followers should offer to go the extra mile.
Verse 43: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” The only enemies you and I have as disciples of Jesus are those who hate us, since we’re to hate no one. Jesus says that when we love those who hate us and pray for them, we are God’s children. Jesus goes on to say that it’s no great accomplishment for us to love those who love us; even unbelievers and notorious sinners do that.
After reading these words of Jesus, I can think of lots of things for which I need to repent.
I sometimes fantasize about getting at people who have hurt me...or who I think have hurt me.
Sometimes, I say cutting things to get back at people who have said or done unkind things toward me.
And I’m less than keen on loving people who have mistreated me; I want to strike out at them in some way, rather than absorbing their indignities so that they can see the dignity, love, confidence, and hope that resides within me through Jesus Christ.
I can be wary of being generous for fear of having less for myself.
Deep down, I don’t want to offer help to those who treat me like a nobody.
I find it hard to love people who are hateful toward me.
If you can identify with any of these feelings, be glad.
It means that God’s Law is doing its work. It’s convicting you and driving you to Jesus, Who can bring us God’s forgiveness and fill us again with the power of the Holy Spirit to live lives that reflect God’s perfect holiness and love.
But in these words of Jesus today, you will also find the Gospel: the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus.
You see, in the whole history of the world, only Jesus has lived a life of perfection like this. He lived that kind of life for us so that, in its sacrifice on the cross, He could save us from our imperfection, unholiness, and death!
Jesus isn’t telling us to travel a pathway that He hasn’t already blazed for us. Instead, He says, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” [Matthew 16:24] In essence, Jesus says, Own your need and trustingly follow the path I've blazed for you!
When Jesus was confronted by people who mocked Him, spat on Him, whipped Him, slapped Him, and crucified Him, He didn’t return evil for evil.
In the garden of Gethsemane, after one of His companions had pulled out a sword and struck a servant of the high priest, lopping off the servant’s ear, Jesus told the disciple: “Put your sword back in its place...for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” [Matthew 26:52]
In His life, Jesus did fight. He fought for the salvation of others; that’s what He did on the cross. But He never fought for Himself.
When you know that nothing can separate you from the love of God given in Christ, you’re freed to live for God and neighbors, you're freed to fight for the good of others, because you know that you’re taken care of for all eternity. [Romans 8:38-39] You can be a voice for the voiceless, strength for the weak. You can stand up for the despised, the ignored, the nobodies of the world.
We belong to the Savior Who always gave of Himself and always loved others. From the cross, He prayed improbably, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]
Jesus isn’t just God in the flesh, you know. Jesus is also the human being like which every one of us should aspire to be. He is, in Paul’s phrasing, “the last Adam,” [1 Corinthians 15:45], the first man in God’s new, eternal creation of which you and I are a part when we are baptized and follow Christ.
We can’t resolve to be perfect like God.
But we can let the perfection of God enter our lives each day through Christ.
As we live with Christ more each day, our resistance to the law in Jesus’ words to us today gives way to surrender the gospel, the promise, in Jesus’ words and something amazing happens.
In Jesus’ famous judgment scene, Matthew 25:31-46, the “sheep,” Jesus’ disciples, ask the King: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" [Matthew 25:37-39]
This is a perfect picture of what happens to disciples as they spend their lives in fellowship with Christ and His Church. Disciples are saved by grace, then God uses disciples as instruments of that grace to bring His salvation to others. As they live with God in daily quiet time, in corporate worship, in small groups that study God's Word together, in mission for Christ, they are transformed.
They have so surrendered to Jesus that Jesus reigns over their lives. They can’t even perceive their own faithfulness because their minds are no longer on themselves, but only on the God they love completely and the neighbor they love as they love themselves.
Folks, don’t worry that you don’t measure up to God’s perfect law. You don’t. And neither do I.
Christ has measured up for you!
Surrender to the Jesus Who has kept God’s law perfectly and is more than willing to cover you in His grace.
Watch out when you do though: You might find as you surrender to Him, Jesus will call you to do things and give of yourself in ways the world thinks crazy. You might end up going on a mission trip to Haiti or India or Cherokee country. You might devote some of your hard-earned money or use some of your leisure time to serve neighbors in places like Chevy Chase or the Saint Vincent's ministry to the homeless. You might commit yourself to the members of your small group, living together in mutual faith and accountability as you grow together as disciples.
Jesus’ love will so fill you though that you’ll hardly give crazy sacrifices like these a second thought.
When you follow the Lord Who has given His life for you, giving your life in return to Him doesn’t seem outrageous.
In gratitude for grace, you’ll willingly live and die for the Savior Who has already lived, and died, and risen for you.
It’s then that our Lord will look at your life and improbably, miraculously, and truthfully call it what it could never be if you were your own lord: perfect! Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was prepared for worship that happened yesterday.]