A older gentleman told his neighbor: “I got this great new hearing aid. It cost me $5,000. It is state of the art. It is perfect!”
“What kind is it?” The neighbor said.
Nothing is perfect (including that joke and my telling of it. )
We read this well-known passage from Matthew and often focus on that that last sentence and on that last word: “perfect.” In Greek teleios. “Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
This is a misreading of the Gospel and a misreading of this text in Matthew. Moral perfection is not what God requires, so relax.
What God does want from you is an open heart that feels, an open mind that wonders, and some open hands that offer. What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, love kindness and walk with humility before others and God.
Actually the Greek work teleios, also means “complete.” So, what Jesus calls for is not perfection but fullness, completeness. As the Common English Bible translation has it: “Therefore, just as your heavenly father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
Eugene Peterson translates the last sentence this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously towards others, the way God lives toward you.”
It is about growth. Becoming like Jesus is a journey towards love – a radical, inclusive, non-violent love that salutes the Christ in others. We are not there yet. But we move towards our desire as the sunflower pursues the sun across the sky. We orient ourselves to this plumb line and hold each other accountable.
Becoming more complete, perfecting this discipline of love is not easy, it is a journey outwards certainly – we are to love others as God loves us. But, this no less a journey inward – because many of us struggle to love ourselves, to accept who we are, to give ourselves a break. “How can God love me?”
I am quick to forgive others but no one is harder on me than I am. A lot of you are like that too. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves like the neighbor!
Furthermore, this passage is not only about how we treat the “other” who we may not know – the refugee for example, but also about the “other” that we do know at least by face – the one within this community. Perhaps sitting in your pew today.
This is passage is straightforward but needs to be interpreted. Do not resist an evildoer, turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs, and lend to anyone.
On Monday I gave $20 to a family that came to the church. On Tuesday I walked right past a man who asked me for money. Deanne and I were on the way to dinner.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius tells his son: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
I wonder about those who are always saying: “I’ll pay you back.”
Love the enemy – well in some esoteric fashion, I get it. But love the person who breaks in my door and harms my family?
Love the armies that attack. Love the democrats or republicans?
I will love you, but I may have to kill you first. Or as the saying goes: “God loves everyone so I don’t have to!”
Turn your cheek, give your clothing away, walk the second mile.
Let’s look at those verses:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you do not resist an evildoer. But if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
An eye for an eye; the Lex talionis – law of retaliation – you can find it in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. As William Slone Coffin noted this law of the early Hebrews was a major moral advance on the more ancient and tribal notion of “you kill one of mine” and I will slaughter your whole tribe.”
Jesus advances this notion still farther – to non-violent subversion. Don’t think Jesus is calling you to be a passive doormat. As Walter Wink and more recently Paul Penley have noted that this turning the other cheek has a subversive intent.
When a Roman soldier struck a social equal with his hand or fist he would make contact with the left side of the face. But with a socially inferior person the soldier would give him a backhand strike therefore making contact with the right side.
Jews were second-class citizens. So Jesus telling his disciples to turn the other check was a call to stand up and at least be slapped as an equal – demand respect. Show that one cannot be broken by injustice or violence.
And since we are in the middle of Black History Month I am reminded that for most of our national history for a black person to resist is to be imprisoned or water cannoned or attacked; to resist again is to be lynched or to die.
Usually those in power don’t worry too much about turning the other cheek, or offering their second coat, saying “I will see you in court,” or “I have a second coat to give.” But, when you are not the privileged, things are different.
I am reminded of Dr. King’s principles of active non-violence, which were grounded precisely on these verses in Matthew; you see the radical nature of what Christ was calling us to be and do.
1. Non-violence is a way of life for courageous people – it is assertive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
2. Non-violence seeks to win friendship and understanding – the end result of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of the Beloved Community.
3. Non-violence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.
4. Non-violence holds that voluntary suffering can educate and transform – it accepts suffering without retaliation, will never inflict violence, and is redemptive.
5. Non-violence chooses love instead of hate – non-violent love gives willingly, is active, does not sink to the level of the hater. Love for the enemy is how we demonstrate love for ourselves. It restores community and recognizes that all life is interrelated.
6. Non-violence believes that the universe is on the side of justice – we believe that justice will eventually win.
This kind of non-violent love is socially and politically active calling us to engagement. It is the foundational principle of Greater Cleveland Congregation work of which this congregation is a leading member.
The call of Jesus Christ to you and to me is to love yourself as God loves you and love others, as Christ loves all in a new bold way – this is not a passive philosophical attitude – it is an active call to live in such a way that you and I witness to the Kingdom of God in our midst. It is not just for the stranger on the street corner, or the other – it isn’t easy to live by these standards within this church community sometimes.
As Barbara Essex, who preached here not too long ago wrote: “Be perfect is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us – fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.” But it takes conversion, and discipline, and will not be without cost or pain.
Don’t feel guilty that you don’t yet live fully into the call of Jesus Christ – you don’t have to be perfect – but you do need to be willing to move out of our comfort zones, you do need to be willing to love and forgive yourself, to treat the person sitting next to you as a beloved child of God (don’t take that for granted!) and to treat others with dignity.
It is a start towards completion. Don’t worry about being perfect…. Its 11:45!