Monday, March 3, 2014

Sermon – “Perfection” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Early in 1902 members of a French archeological team were exploring the ancient royal city of Susa in Iran. There they came across a large carved stone, seven feet long and six feet in circumference. On it were engraved forty-four columns of ancient Babylonian cuneiform script. What they had discovered was the collection of laws of Hammurabi, the sixth king of the first Babylonian Empire, dating from around 1750 BC. The introduction to the text (actually written thirty years later) states that Hammurabi was predestined by the gods “to cause justice to radiate over the land, to surrender sinners and evildoers to destruction, and to take care that the strong should not oppress the weak”.

Now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Hammurabi’s Code consists of 282 laws covering almost every imaginable aspect of life: marriage and family relations; negligence; fraud; commercial contracts; duties of public officials; property and inheritance; crimes and punishments; protection for women, children, and slaves; debt relief for victims of food and drought; taverns; the building of houses and ships… Embedded within it is the earliest written expression of what is known as the Law of Talion: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out” (196). “If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken” (197). “If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out” (200).

It all sounds rather fierce and primitive to us now, but the Law of Talion (from which we derive our word “retaliation”) was instituted to prevent the escalation of violence. (Would that the Hatfields and the McCoys had known about it a hundred and fifty years ago!) A version of that same law is found centuries later in the book of Leviticus (24:19,20) in the Old Testament Law: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” And that is where Jesus’ commentary on the Law begins in this week’s passage.

The path of non-resistance


The Law of Talion was intended to promote justice. However, Jesus takes it a step farther—indeed, a quantum leap. “This is what you have always been taught,” he tells his disciples, “but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.” Now I can’t imagine Jesus’ disciples just sitting back and taking all this in. Remember that among them was Simon the Zealot, a radical revolutionary dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. There were also James and John, whom Jesus later nicknamed the sons of thunder, presumably because of their violent tempers.

Perhaps they did try to interject, but that did not stop Jesus from driving his point further home with three forceful examples.

·  The first had to do with being struck on the cheek. What Jesus was talking about was not just being slapped. In order to be hit on the right cheek, the assailant has to use the back of his hand. In the world of Jesus’ day, this did not just cause injury; it was an insult reserved for the lowest of the low.

·  In the book of Exodus (22:26) there is a law that states, “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down.” But Jesus says, if someone takes your tunic, give them your cloak as well, even if it leaves you in the shame of going about naked.

·  In the occupied Roman territories soldiers could conscript local inhabitants to carry their heavy packs for a mile. (Exactly the same verb is used of Simon of Cyrene when he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.) But Jesus says, “Don’t just go the one mile—go two!”

Jean Vanier, founder of the worldwide l’Arche communities for people with disabilities, speaks about the need to absorb negativity and violence—and he himself is a living example of what that involves. One of his biographers tells this story:

Once in the road in Trosly he was accosted by a large, muscular man from the village. He was hurling abuse at l’Arche, at people with disabilities and at Jean, all of whom he seemed to hate. The man hit Jean on the ear but not quite hard enough to knock him to the ground. Jean found himself standing firm and heard himself saying, ‘You can hit me again if you want.’ Flabbergasted, the man took him by the hand and invited him to his house.[1]

It all sounds like an impossible ethic. Yet even as the Nazi power was exerting its deathly grip on Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write,

The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match.[2]

The evil of Nazism was such that in the end Bonhoeffer saw no alternative to becoming involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Two years later the physician who witnessed his hanging at Flossenburg prison camp testified, “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”[3]

The transforming power of love


If the path of non-resistance is a difficult pill for us to swallow, Jesus turns up the pressure by several degrees in his next remarks. It is not enough that we should not resist our enemies, he tells us. We should love them. Here we need to remember that in the Bible love does not mean thinking nice thoughts or having warm feelings towards another person. No, love in the biblical sense means taking practical action, doing loving things. The priest and the Levite may well have had kind thoughts about the wounded traveler in the ditch, but it was the Samaritan who loved him.

In his recent book David and Goliath, New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of police officer Joanne Jaffe. In 2003 she took over responsibility for the New York City neighborhood of Brownsville. Home to more than 100,000 people, Gladwell describes it as “block upon block of bleak, featureless brick-and-concrete developments … plagued by groups of teenagers who roamed the streets, mugging passersby”. One of the first tasks Jaffe undertook was to compile a list of all the teenagers who had been arrested over the previous year—106 in all, who by her estimate could have been responsible for as many as 5000 crimes.

She then put together a task force of police officers and had them contact every name on the list. They told the teens, “We want to do everything we can to get you back in school, to help you get a high school diploma, to bring services to your family, find out what’s needed in the household. We will provide job opportunities, educational opportunities, medical—everything we can. We want to work with you.”

The breakthrough only came after months into the program, when a group of officers chipped in to provide Thanksgiving dinner to the family of one of the worst offenders. “This is a kid we’re gonna lose,” they said, “but there are seven other kids in that family. We had to do something for them.” This inspired Jaffe to request the police commissioner to provide 125 Thanksgiving dinners to all the families of the teens in the program. A month later this led to Christmas toy giveaways, to playing basketball with them, taking them out for meals, driving them to medical appointments. The approach seems counterintuitive, but the number of robberies and arrests declined over each of the succeeding five years, down to twenty percent of their original level.[4]

Joanne Jaffe took an amazing risk, and it was altogether possible that her gambit could have failed. Crime and violence might have increased in Brownsville. Yet the point is that we need to be willing to take the risk, to love even those who have done us wrong, who may even hate us and everything we stand for, all the while remembering that for Jesus it led to the cross.

The challenge of perfection


I do not claim that this is an easy teaching either to understand or to accept. It may have been words like this that caused some of Jesus’ followers to say, “This is tough teaching. Who can accept it?” There were some (and I suspect no small number) who decided to stop following him. However, that did not deter Jesus, who in our passage this morning ratchets things up even further with the seemingly impossible demand, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What does Jesus mean by this? I think the answer is to be found in the word that is rendered “perfect” in almost every English translation of the Bible. In Greek it is teleios. Most of the time it is translated “mature”, and it means whole, fully developed, or complete. We find it in passages such as these:

·  You know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be teleios and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:3,4)

·  Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone teleios in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)

·  Epaphras … is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand teleios and fully assured in everything that God wills. (Colossians 4:12)

But the clincher for me in understanding this word is found in Paul’s testimony to the Philippians, where he writes,

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are teleios be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. (Philippians 3:13-15)

To be teleios is not to have arrived. Nor is it to have reached the pinnacle of moral and spiritual perfection. In fact it has nothing to do with me or my achievements. Quite the opposite: it is to recognize my incompleteness, and that my true completion is to be found in God—that to be fully human, fully the person that God has created me to be, means to live in a relationship with him, and to depend on his love and mercy, grace and power. For this reason, of all the translations of this verse, I like Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message best: “Grow up… Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

As we leave this first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, we are reminded that what Jesus is talking about is not living for God, but living in him and with him. It is an invitation not to heroism but to faith—to walk through life in company with him.




[1]     Kathryn Spink, The Miracle, the Message, the Story: Jean Vanier and l’Arche, 90,91
[2]     Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 127
[3]     Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 532
[4]     Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, 209-217

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