3rd before Lent Psalm 119:33-40 Matthew 5:38 – end
A year or so ago Don told me that a sermon I’d preached had kept him on the edge of his seat. Sadly this wasn’t due to its sheer spiritual power but rather because I had strayed into the passage he was going to speak on the next week and he was concerned lest I should get in first with everything he wanted to say. Fortunately there wasn’t too much overlap so he was able, between graciously, gritted teeth (actually I made that up, really he was just gracious) to cover quite different ground from me. When I realised what I’d done I sympathised but I didn’t really understand- till last week when Vincent preaching on an earlier part of the chapter did touch on today’s reading as well. However, I have two consolations – the first is that we have different takes on the passage so there shouldn’t be too much overlap, the second is that given the announcement he and Linda made last week I bet most of us won’t remember what he said in the sermon anyway.
And, of course, I can build on some of the points he made. One is simply the reminder that our two passages belong together – he described them as the six antitheses – they are of the form ‘You have heard it said….but now I tell you..’ Jesus introduced them by saying how important the law is and then going on to show how it is to be reworked to reveal the Kingdom of Heaven
Today’s passage is the last pair of Jesus’s statements ‘You have heard it said .eye for eye ..but now I tell you..you have heard it said love your friends hate you enemies but now I tell you..culminating in ‘You must be perfect – Just as your Father in heaven is perfect!’
A confession. I’ve always found this part of the Sermon on the Mount rather depressing. I think because it has always seemed to be a progression of targets. We start at the manageable (well at least I didn’t murder anybody today) then move to the much more difficult (even though that idiot really got under my skin – oh no I’m not even supposed to be angry with him) and end up at the actively impossible – be perfect like God is perfect and this perfection is the Bull’s Eye it’s the only part of the target that really counts. But perfection seems such an absolute idea – pure love, pure compassion, pure truth, pure goodness, pure justice – this is way beyond my understanding, let alone my experience, let alone my attainment so how can I possibly live up to it?
Of course, I can’t and there have been times when it seems so out of reach that the passage seems designed to let us know how much we need forgiveness.
At which point, when I have come to the end of myself, the grace of God can be thrown to me like a lifebelt.
[A footnote. It is true that sometimes that is how we experience God. For whatever reason life is desperate, we are desperate and what gets us through is that we can cling on to Him and He clings on to us. I do not want to deny this at all. But I don’t think that experience is what these verses are about, firstly because Jesus is more interested in helping us live right than He is in making us feel guilty and secondly because the grace of God is only to be used as our last resort it should be where we start.]
This reading of the passage which points us to ever increasing difficulty – manageable, challenging, even though it’s pointing us in a way we want to go. The law says don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, Jesus says the kingdom pattern is don’t dismiss people as worthless, don’t regard other people as objects provided for your gratification, challenging and then onto impossible ‘Be perfect’ which I find paralysing – so let’s start there.
Let’s start at the end v.48 The impossibility. As I was thinking about this a penny dropped I’d been reading what Jesus had been saying as a progression with perfection at the centre of the target. What if he hadn’t meant this as His final point but rather was using this verse to summarise what He’d said earlier.Because if He is using this as a summary Jesus is not only telling us how we should live He is also telling us what God is like.
So in our verses what is happening is
‘You have heard it said – this is the law – given so that if you lived by it things wouldn’t get too awful, but now I tell you – and this is the way of the Kingdom of God, this is how your Father in Heaven acts – this is what his perfection is like – it’s not something abstract it’s starting point is what He brings to His dealings with us.
Let’s look at our passage with the question ‘How does God deal with us?’ v38-42 The way of the law – eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – punishment should be proportionate to the crime – good starting point – I imagine when we are feeling gloomy about either ourselves or God then we find even this hard to believe that God would set any limit on His disappointment with us – proportion doesn’t come into it.
But Jesus says the way of the kingdom of God goes further ie God steps back from like for like.The slap is an insult – how often is God insulted by His people let alone anybody else, how often is He ignored, How often is He misrepresented (preaching is a hostage to fortune) – think of what His name has been used to justify – slavery, exploitation, a status quo that excludes and discriminates.
How does he respond? We see when we look at Jesus – look at the people who insulted Him from hosts at a meal through to the soldiers who crucified Him. He responds with grace. He turns the other cheek.
The ‘now I tell you’ part of this is what Jesus showed and what we receive from the Father. I find this goes somewhat against the grain. Isn’t this the perfection of the doormat? No, what we see in Jesus and in the way of the kingdom is the strength of someone who is not going to be controlled by somebody else’s failings.The person who insults, the person who takes to court, the person who exploits didn’t have the power to control Jesus’ response. He did not respond like for like. Bonhoeffer in prison.
Next section 43 – 47 . In home group on Thursday we touched on God’s anger – things that we thought He must hate large scale – injustice, cruelty, what we do to the world He’s given us to care for. small scale – indifference, meanness, the way we can shut people out. Things that we believe properly make Him angry. This passage doesn’t deny the anger it talks of enemies, of the good and the bad but what does it say the way of the kingdom is? These things don’t take people outside God’s love – He doesn’t deny the sun and rain even to the bad people, even to the people that make Him angry. Again this goes slightly against the grain – it’s an unexpected way for perfection to show itself. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t judgement, that we shouldn’t work for the good that we shouldn’t pray that our enemies change, that God’s anger doesn’t matter. It does mean that the way of the Kingdom, the perfection of God shown to us takes as a starting point that nothing takes us beyond His love.
It may not always do us good to feel guilty, but it very often is healthy for us to feel humbled and when we read this passage that should be par of our response – either because the far reaching nature of God’s love puts ours to shame, or more likely, or as well, because we have benefitted from side of His character. We do things He doesn’t like, we treat others in ways that will disappoint Him but we have not put ourselves beyond His love.
So what does it mean to be perfect as He is perfect, how has He shown it to us? His behaviour is not controlled by us – He doesn’t offer like for like. We can work with Him for His kingdom but we can’t throw Him off track by insulting Him or whatever.
This all encompassing love is the perfection that God shows – it does not shy away from us because we are not lovely because we are not good, the perfection of God does not see that as a reason for abandoning us.
Close with a poem – really Christmas – but it recognises that God’s love for us is clear eyed.,
It’s when we face for a momentthe worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts
as guest, as brother,
On the Mystery of the Incarnation