Be “Perfect” (as God is “perfect”)

Matthew 5:17-48

Large yellow arrow on the ground, with two feet in tennis shoes, the word "Follow" superimposed on the image.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus says to ordinary people, “Follow me.” In the Sermon on the Mount he clearly lays out the path to discipleship: embracing countercultural values, responding nonviolently in all situations, and radically trusting that God’s love will prevail. During the season of Lent, we listen deeply to the words of Jesus, and learn to walk in the steps of Jesus through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charity. We let Jesus reorder our priorities and our appetites as we lean in to what it really means to follow him.

This morning we are going to read a fairly long section of the Sermon on the Mount. In your Bibles, it’s broken up by subheadings, and each one of the little sections could be a sermon on its own. In fact, I have preached about many of these smaller sections in the past and you’re welcome to go find those podcasts if you’re interested. But there is great value to not simply reading one small section, but getting a sense of the whole message and that is what we are going to do today. I’m going to break up the reading a little so that I can explain some things before we build on them.

In the first section Jesus talks about following God’s law, which we know as the first five books of the Old Testament. But if we don’t remember what he said before this, we are going to get the wrong idea. So remember what we heard last week: the Beatitudes – blessed are those who have nothing going for them, are grieving, have no power and can’t figure out how to fix the world. Blessed are those who try to see things and people clearly and reach out across ideological boundary lines. Blessed are those who do what’s right, even though the world doesn’t thank them for it. The Kingdom of the Heavens is for everyone. The beatitudes are Jesus’ radical revolutionary message of good news for all people. God is with all of us. God is blessing all of us. Not because we deserve it, but because that’s just how God is. Got it? OK, *now* we can read what comes next. Matthew chapter 5 verses 17 through 20.

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, the Jewish Old Testament rules. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you until the heavens and the earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law, so that everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens. But whoever practices and teaces these commands will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of the heavens. 

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Hmmmmmm. How many of you would say that somewhere along the way you might have picked up the idea that because you follow Jesus you do not have to follow the Law. I did, growing up. I had that idea. But that is absolutely not what Jesus says here. He says all the law must be kept; that he has come to fulfill the law and not get rid of it; and that our righteousness must surpass that of the most faithful interpreters and followers of the law. So what do we do with that?

First, I think we need to be able to separate the idea of following the law from Jesus saving our souls so we get into heaven when we die. Remember that although he says “kingdom of the heavens” he is not talking about the pearly gates and streets of gold. He is talking about a world where the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s empire on earth, as opposed to the worldly empires like the Roman empire. This is not about whether you go to heaven. 

Even the apostle Paul will say in Romans chapter 3 that we are made righteous (same word as Jesus used) by faith apart from the works of the law. But also that this faith does not overthrow the law but instead upholds the law.    The law was given to the ancient Hebrews to lead them into a way of life that honored God. Observant Jews today still follow the law not as a legalistic code but as a guide for a life that is honoring to God, to others and to oneself. Despite what other preachers may have told you, the law is good and every writer in the New Testament confirms this.

So what does this mean for us? What does it mean for us to follow the law and teach the law and have a righteousness that “surpasses the scribes and Pharisees”? First, let me say very clearly that it does not mean the Christians are better than Jews. God has not given up on the Jews and replaced them with Christians. That’s an outdated and anti-semitic idea based in a warped interpretation of scripture. Followers of Jesus are not better than followers of the Jewish tradition. 

What is does mean is that we honor the law and uphold the law by following Jesus. One core conviction of Christianity is that Jesus shows us exactly what God is really like. And if Jesus fulfills the law with his life, then if we follow him, we will also be following the law. Laws always require interpretation and explanation and instructions about how to apply it in specific situations. The Jewish people have a rich tradition of interacting with and understanding the law. Christians recognize that the law is given by God and good for human flourishing and our way of following it is to follow the one who fulfilled it in his very person, in every word he spoke and action he took. Jesus shows us what a life of following the law looks like. And so, for us, instead of trying to interpret the rules, we try to follow in his steps. 

Now, that will also require interpretation and explanation and instructions about how to do it in specific situations. There’s no way around that. But instead of starting with the Old Testament codes, Christians start with Jesus because we believe that he fully embodied the spirit of the codes and can show us what they look like. He is the only human who has ever truly fulfilled the law and so he can show us how to do it, even though we will never do it as completely as he did. 

What this means is that we cannot be “saved” by Jesus without changing our lives. To follow Jesus means to actually live like he did and not like everyone else lives. Jesus is showing us that the ways of this world are not inevitable, that it is possible to live counterculturally, to be distinct from the socieity around us. The world will not thank us for it, we will experience resistance and Jesus even says persecution, but that’s what happens when we live as God really intends us to live. 

The next section is how. Let’s pick back up in verses 21 through 37.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[that’s one of the 10 Commandments] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who scorns a brother or sister is answerable to the Jewish council. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the Gehenna of fire [which was the trash dump outside the city that was constantly burning].

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ [Another of the 10 Commandments] But I tell you that if you look at a person lustfully, you have already committed adultery with them in your heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna [the burning garbage dump]. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ [That’s from Deuteronomy 24] But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ [This if found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy] But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[This is in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and was designed to limit the cycle of violence.] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 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.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

These are some examples of how Jesus says to live out the law. He gives the law and then he gives a direction that addresses not only our actions, but our character. If you follow the rule of not murdering, then you won’t murder, and that is good. But the life God intends for us is a life where we are not driven by anger, and where we take the first step in reconciliation. Not committing adultery is good. But even better if we become the kinds of people who don’t objectify our fellow humans, who respect them as people and not just as something to use to fulfill our own sexual desires. An eye for an eye, only one for only one is good — it limits our tendency to hit back harder than someone hit us. But even better is if we find ways to creatively turn the tables and always respond nonviolently. You see how Jesus is upholding the law by showing us what is at the root of the rules? And we can do this because we have a model that we can follow. We follow Jesus. 

Finally the last section. Verses 43 through 48. 

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor [Leviticus 19:18] and hate your enemy.’ [Hate your enemy is not found in the Jewish law, that’s conventional wisdom. We came up with that one.] But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

This, friends, this right here, is the revolution. Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us is the only thing that will save the world. It is the only thing that will rescue us. It is the only thing that will heal us. It is the only thing that will give us victory. And the reason we are still talking about it is because it’s so hard to do. Because doing this gets us right in our ego. It requires us to act contrary to our sense of what is fair and the fact that we are right and that other people should be punished for being wrong. Loving our enemies turns all that on its head. And we must do it if we want things to be any different. And as long as we are not doing it, we cannot blame anyone else for the way the world is. 

And this love must be practical, not theoretical. As practical as sun and rain and who we greet with kindness. In the book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes one of his characters saying “I love mankind, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.” Jesus has no room for this. We cannot say we love humanity without loving actual people. 

People who do this are children of God, just as the peacemakers are in the Beatitudes. To love our enemies is to be recognized as a child of God, someone who reflects their parent. Which is why the final statement calls us to be “perfect” as God is “perfect.” That is an unfortunately limited translation. It’s not inaccurate. It just fails to capture the full sense of the word. It’s not “perfect” as in “never made a mistake.” It’s “perfect” as in “perfected, made whole, complete.” We are called to be complete, mature, integrated, and full as the love of God. That kind of life will stand out in a society powered by a system that runs at cross purposes to the Gospel. It is the life we find as we follow Jesus. Amen. 

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