Be Perfect

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Anyone that has ever read the Old Testament can tell you that it is a violent book. There is murder, genocide, and even infanticide. All of that is bad enough, but to make it even worse, much of it seems to be sanctioned by God. God is the one telling his followers to do the killing.

I can’t address every concern that I have with the Old Testament today, but if you are interested in this subject I would like to suggest a book by Preston Sprinkle called Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. In this book, Sprinkle gives an accessible survey of some of the more troubling passages in the Old Testament as well as answering some of the contemporary criticisms of non-violence.

I want to start today with a man named Lamech. We find Lamech in Genesis chapter 4 where we learn that he is a direct descendant of Adam and Eve’s son Cain. The world as we know it is still pretty new when we meet Lamech as there have only been a few generations of people that have graced the face of the earth by this time.

You may recall that Cain had killed his brother, Abel, and God punished Cain by condemning him to wander the earth for the rest of his life. Cain was terrified by this because he was afraid that others would find him and kill him. So God gave Cain a promise that anyone who killed Cain would be punished seven times over and God put a mark on Cain so everyone would know of his protected status. Then in Genesis 4:23b-24 we find Lamech saying “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

So Lamech was an all-around nice guy. This man was willing to kill a man just for injuring him, and he was willing to enact vengeance seventy-seven times! That doesn’t seem very fair to me and I would suggest that like his ancestor Cain, what motivated Lamech was a fear of what others might do to him. Please keep this story in mind as we move along in human history to our text for today.

Verse 38 begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” This is a teaching often referred to as the “Lex Talionis,” the Law of Retaliation, and it is found at least three times in the Torah, the books of the Bible given to Moses. The Lex Talionis provided a huge step in bringing justice to the world as it stated that a person who has been wronged can only seek equal retribution for a loss. If someone pokes out your eye, you cannot take their life. If someone kills your mule, you cannot take their home. The punishment was to fit the crime.

It is probably obvious that the Lex Talionis has been modified over the years, but it is still one of the major teachings informing our judicial system today. No, we don’t see people cutting out the eyes of other people in the United States, but the punishment is supposed to fit the crime, as determined by the system. So if you steal a pack of gum, you are not going to be required to spend eternity behind bars. Yes, this is a little more subjective than actually taking someone’s eye if they cut out yours, but I think that given the two options, I would rather allow for the subjective interpretation.

As Christians we believe that Jesus came to reveal to us God’s good and perfect will. The Bible tells us that Jesus was without sin and we should seek to live as he lived and follow his teachings. And Jesus said that the Lex Talionis, as much of an improvement as it might have been over Lamech looking for revenge 77 times, was not God’s perfect will. Instead, we can speak of the Lex Talionis as God’s “permissive will.”

When we speak of God’s permissive will, we are talking about something that God allowed to happen, often in the Old Testament, but it was revealed through the New Testament and Jesus that God expected more. We can think of things like gender relations, polygamy, and slavery that might fall under the category of “God’s Permissive Will” in the Old Testament. Women were viewed as property, polygamy was the norm, and slavery was just a part of life in the Old Testament. But we see these things begin to change. Jesus addressed women as equals. Paul outlines the requirements for an overseer and makes the requirement that they only have one spouse. And while slavery was not outlawed in the New Testament, it is clear that slaves gained a greater status, perhaps even an equal status in the New Testament (no longer slave or free…).

But let’s be clear on this: to claim that the Lex Talionis was appropriate for a time and a place is not to say that the Old Testament has no authority today. But I hope we all would agree that there are certain practices in the Old Testament that Jesus refines and redefines for us.

Take for instance the practice of stoning people caught in adultery. Leviticus 20:10 states, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” Most of us know this passage because Jesus chose to offer grace to a woman caught in adultery when the people were looking to stone her.

If I asked a Christian today why we don’t stone people caught in adultery, they will probably say “Because Jesus showed us the importance of offering grace in that situation.” And I think that is a good thing. We take Jesus’ actions in John’s Gospel over the Levitical Law. The Levitical Law had a time and place, but now it has been replaced by the ethics of Jesus. Even though many people don’t think about it, we take Jesus’ teachings over the Old Testament when they seem to contradict one another. Jesus gives us a new and better way to interpret the Law.

So why did God wait until the New Testament to reveal this peaceful vision for his kingdom? It seems to me that God meets us where we are and finds us where we are able to follow him.

This is the last Sunday of February, which means we have had about eight weeks of 2014 to either break our New Year’s resolutions or establish new routines that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. The crowd at the local YMCA has definitely thinned out since the beginning of the year (pun intended). And I think I know why.

As December came to an end many of us made the decision to make life changes in the coming year. We wanted to exercise more, eat better, and improve our overall health. Everyone could stand to make these kinds of adjustments to their lives, I am sure. But so many people lose momentum after only a few weeks. And from personal experience, I can tell you why.

On January 1st people begin to clear out their refrigerators, getting rid of all their junk food. If it isn’t green in color it isn’t going in our mouths. We dedicate ourselves to exercising every day, even though we haven’t done anything since last New Year’s resolutions fell through. So we set the alarm for 5:30 on Monday, we run, we do Zumba, hit the weights, do laps in the pool, everything that sounds like exercise we make a part of our new routine.

Then comes January 2nd and you hurt from head to toe. You hurt in places you didn’t know you had. And you are craving some Fiddle Faddle or Twinkies. And just as a side note, Easter is just around the corner, so Cadbury Eggs will soon be coming out of hiding, if you want to give your pastor a nice gift.

So in the midst of the physical pain, the hunger pangs, and the overall tiredness, we quit. It was just too much for any one person to handle. So you give up on your New Year’s resolutions and life goes on as usual.

Experts suggest that rather than making these major changes all at once that people change their diet and exercise routine in small increments. Doing too much too quickly is just too hard! Your body was not ready for that change and it is protesting! Sometimes we just need to take it slow.

The Hebrew people in the Old Testament are call things like “stiff necked” and “hard hearted.” If God would have told Moses that the people needed to turn the other cheek, love their neighbors, and pray for those who persecute them, it would have been like the New Year’s resolutioners who hit it hard, try so very diligently, but eventually fail because they were not ready. So God’s permissive will in the Old Testament was that we move past this Lemechian attitude where we repay violence seventy-seven times. And now, through Jesus, God is revealing his perfect will.

In Matthew 18:21-22 we find this exchange between Jesus and Peter: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

Do you think that it is an accident that Jesus says seventy-seven times in response to Peter? If it is an accident, it is at least an interesting one! No, I think Jesus is calling us to a new ethic, a deeper ethic, an ethic of perfection.

In verse 48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If there was ever a time for us to get frustrated with Jesus’ teachings, this is it! Who among us is perfect? Not a single one of us. Who among us can be perfect? I guess it depends on how you define perfection.

This isn’t the only time that Jesus uses this phrase. In the story of the Rich Young Ruler (let’s stick with Matthew here) we find this man coming to Jesus and asking what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, to which this sharp young man responds, “Which ones?”

Jesus replies, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The young man assures Jesus that he has kept these commandments since his youth. But Jesus tells him there is one thing that he is lacking. If he wants to be perfect, he needs to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him.

Please note that there are some obvious items that were left off that list of commandments by Jesus, most notably the sin of idolatry. I don’t know that someone could be worshipping an idol and still be considered perfect by many of our standards. No, what Jesus is referring to here when he says “perfect” is not a state of being where there is no more room for improvement and no mistakes are ever made.

The word Jesus uses here is telos, which means “goal or purpose.” When something reaches its intended goal or purpose, it is perfected. When Jesus tells the Rich Ruler to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him, he wasn’t saying that the man would be without flaw. He was saying that he would find his ultimate purpose and goal.

So when Jesus tells his disciples in this passage to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect, he is doing so in the context of loving their enemies. Perfect love, the goal of love, is to love everyone equally. Even those who would do you harm.

And here is an added benefit for those like Cain and Lamech that fear retaliation: Perfect love casts out all fear.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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