I am going to break the rule of one of the most influential people in my life. Maria von Trapp, at least as played by Julie Andrews, sings, “Let’s start at the very beginning,” but today I am not. In fact, I’m going to start at the very end, because if you’re anything like me, when I heard the end, I couldn’t even go back to the beginning to think about what it said. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfect. Riiiiiight. Perfection is impossible. Or at least perfection achieved by human beings is certainly impossible. If we know anything to be true, it is this, that we are imperfect creatures. From the very beginning of creation, in our relationships with God and with others, even in our relationships with ourselves, we experience on a daily basis our complete imperfection. So why does Jesus say this? Is he challenging us so that we’ll achieve some level of goodness, even if it’s not perfection? Or is he just setting us up for failure?
My assessment is no. To all of it. This is a case not of Jesus asking us to do what we can’t, but a case of the English language, or at least the traditional translation of Greek to the English language, failing us. I don’t often spend a lot of my sermon time playing around in ancient languages, because I have been told and I have experienced it is usually the *perfect* way to lose a congregation, but this time it seems worth it. The perfection Jesus is talking about here is not perfection like an A+ grade on a test. It isn’t like making it all the way through a hymn without missing a note. It isn’t like saying exactly the right thing to exactly the right person every single time.
It isn’t perfection meaning never making any mistakes and never doing one single thing wrong. That perfection is impossible and attempting to live into it would be a life lived in vain. Last week we heard the command from Moses in Deuteronomy telling us to “choose life,” but chasing after an unattainable perfection in the tasks of daily living sounds about as life-draining as things can get. It’s a good thing this isn’t what Jesus is talking about.
A better way to think of this might be “Live your purpose, therefore, as your heavenly Father lives his purpose.” The word perfection is not so much about living without mistakes as it is about living the life to which we are called, living with integrity the life God as prepared for us to live, living fully, choosing life and life-giving ways, as opposed to copping out, dumbing things down, or just squeaking by. Being perfect means, to borrow from the old Army commercial, “Being all that you can be” or even better, being all that you have been created and blessed to be. This has echoes of the words from earlier in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount the words from the Beatitudes that might be summarized, “You are blessed. Act like it.”
Be perfect, Jesus commands us, no, Jesus challenges us, no, Jesus commissions us. Be exactly who you are created to be, no more, no less. Be who God has called you to be and gifted you to be and blessed you to be, be the best you God has made you to be in whatever situation you find yourself. This is the perfection we can seek, this is the perfection we can strive to live into. It doesn’t come from our own ideas of what is flawless; it comes from God’s idea of our potential, and that’s what’s described in the first part of the passage.
Unfortunately and shamefully, some of these early verses have been used dangerously in the church and society. The teaching that one is to turn the other cheek has been employed to keep women and others in abusive relationships. “Turn the other cheek,” generations have been told, instead of, “Get out. Be blessed. You are made for more than this.” A colleague of mine tells the story of participating in a community workshop meant to educate leaders about the realities of domestic violence. After a particularly disturbing presentation from a women who had escaped an abusive marriage the pastor asked, “What can the church do?” The woman simply responded, “Stop telling women they have to stay and get beaten.”
They do not. Turning the other cheek does not mean accepting abuse in what is supposed to be a loving relationship. If you hear nothing else this morning, hear me say that Jesus does NOT desire, Jesus does NOT command that those who are being abused in any way must keep their mouths shut and stay in dangerous, abusive situations of ANY kind. The church must end its silence about domestic abuse and by that silence its participation in the continuation of the sin of abuse.
Being a Christian does not mean you are a doormat. Being a person of faith does NOT mean you must let people walk all over you. This verse about not resisting evildoers doesn’t mean we should sit idle while evil is enacted around us; it means we should not stop evil with the ways of evil. Jesus isn’t advocating non-resistance all together; he is just telling us what kind of resistance to use.
The people of Jesus’ time and the early church who first received Matthew’s gospel lived in a very different world than most of us in 21st century America. The residents of Judea lived under the occupation of Rome, under the thumb of Roman soldiers and Roman officials. The relationship was tense and could even be dangerous. It was an oppressive and brutal occupation. It was perfectly legal for a soldier to do what is described in Jesus’ sermon, force an ordinary citizen to carry his pack a mile down the road.
Imagine the humiliation that boiled up at being ordered by another human being to do something as infuriating as carrying the pack of an oppressing soldier. Imagine the anger that escalated step after step, step after step as one was burdened down physically by a representative of the emperor who was burdening the whole country financially, socially, and religiously. Imagine wanting to throw the pack back at him, wanting to strike out at the soldier, spit in his face, return to him all the evil and pain he stood for.
But Jesus says don’t. Don’t stand against the soldier with the same tactics the soldier used to stand against you. Don’t resist him with the kinds of actions he uses against you. Jesus says we are called not to lay ourselves down and take whatever is coming to us, but we are called to rise above the violence and oppression and fight violence with peace, counter evil with love. Do not resist the way others resist, with hits and slaps and shots fired back. Resist with courageous strength in the face of power. Resist even with love.
Jesus’ preaching is not an advocacy for non-resistance all together. It’s an advocacy for the right kind of resistance, the kind of resistance that is life giving, even if it is not life-saving. This kind of resistance has been powerful and effective around the world even as it has put its practitioners in danger. This kind of resistance is the kind of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights Movement. It is the kind of resistance often used in central and eastern Europe in 1989. It is the kind of resistance that helped topple apartheid in South Africa.
And albeit on a totally different scale, it is the resistance we can use, we are called to use in conflicts each and every day. It would be easy to simply read these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and tuck them away, promising to pull them out someday when they apply, when we find ourselves oppressed by an evil regime. It would be easy to discount them as antiquated and unrealistic, inapplicable to our daily living in a relatively peaceful community.
But rarely are Jesus’ words really that easy to receive. They apply to us even here and even now. They are for us to follow as we seek to follow him today. Ultimately what Jesus is asking for is for his followers to live as he lives, to love as he loves. His love is not sugar-coated. His love is not passive or wishy-washy or anything that resembles being a doormat. His love allows for reaction, but it calls for a completely different kind of reaction than we may ordinarily choose because his love is not limited. Jesus doesn’t love only those who are in his family, only those who are of a like mind, only those who follow the rules, only those who return love to him. Jesus loves everyone, even the one who turned him over to the authorities, even the ones who mocked him and crucified him, even the ones who left him alone in his deepest hour of need.
He loved them and he loves us so much that he gives us a new way to choose life in the middle of disagreement and conflict. He gives us another option. Aggressiveness can end with us. Ugliness can end with us. The insistence on getting our own way can end with us, because Jesus has given us grace. Jesus has shown us how to offer grace in the face of aggression. Jesus has shown us how to choose life, choose love, choose a different way of resisting the temptation to lash out even in the middle of mundane day-to-day life.
When somebody tailgates you all the way to the store, you can show them a choice sign with your hand OR you can stop the irritation and give them the front row parking spot even when you saw it first. When someone tosses their trash on your yard, you can package it up and deliver it back to theirs, or you can just clean it up. When someone writes a scathing and judgmental letter to the editor or comment on social media you can slam words back at them or offer thanks for the freedom to disagree and invite them over to supper to talk about things face to face.
There is another way. There is a way out of the cycles of violence and aggression and basic disregard for the life of others that we so greatly cherish for ourselves. It is a way that offers life to others. It is the way that uses peace as an answer to violence, love to conquer evil, and friendship to overcome enemies. There is another way, and it is the way of grace, the way of love. It is the way of Jesus.
Civil Rights Movement picture by By User:Mitchumch [Public domain, Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons