Leviticus 19: 1,2 12-19, Matthew 5: 38-48
This week is our last chunk of the sermon on the mount before the lectionary asks us to look at the Transfiguration of Jesus, and then we go into Lent and start preparing for Easter. And what does Jesus offer us, in this final bit of teaching? A slap in the face.
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left… love your enemies..
be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.
It all feels so impossible, so unattainable, so much like a slap in the face. I have been thinking all week about being perfect. How can I do that? How can I even try?
Why is Jesus asking me to do the impossible?
Then I read this translation of the passage in “The Message”. The Message is written by an American scholar of NT Greek, Eugene Peterson, as his attempt to make the Greek original come to life for a 21st century audience.
So here is how Eugene Peterson reads Matthew ch5 v38-48
“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.
If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
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 toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Suddenly ‘be perfect’ has become ‘grow up & live generously and graciously’. This is because Peterson is translating the word ‘telos’ – which does have a sense of perfection, but also means ‘the end or the goal’. Jesus is not trying to set an impossible ‘bar’ for our behaviour, but to drag us, with him, into being fully alive, fully grown up, fully what God has made us to be.
It’s not a slap in the face to reprimand or rebuke, but a call to wake up and follow Jesus into being people of the kingdom.
Jesus has already warned his listeners that they need to wake up and look again at the laws of Moses, the sort of thing we heard from the book of Leviticus.
Jesus warns that we shouldn’t for a moment think that following him means we don’t need any laws any more – and maybe that’s the sort of thinking that Jesus has in mind when he says to those who are following him ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets – I have not come not to abolish but to fulfill’. There’s that idea of perfection, or completion again.
If we look at the laws we heard today from Leviticus, I don’t think there are any there we would want to say should not apply to us as Christians : Leave a harvest for the poor, do not steal, lie, swear falsely, or exploit others. Judge justly, do not slander, and do not hate, but love others.
There is a concern for doing the right thing, living the right way, and caring especially for the poor, which is shot right through so many of the laws of the Hebrew scriptures.
If some people think that following Jesus is an alternative to following the law, Jesus says do not follow the law less, but follow it more closely – exceed what you think is the letter of the law – aim for perfection, completion, the end and goal that is the kingdom of God
The problem with rules and regulations is that there are different ways of ‘following’ them, aren’t there. Think of someone who is operating a ‘work to rule’ at work, for example. The attitude becomes ‘you can only make me do what it absolutely states in my contract of work I must do and no more’. The rules become the limit of what is required of that person, rather than the foundation for the work they do, which may well include things which aren’t actually written down anywhere at all. The danger of this attitude to rules or laws is that it can lead to a grudging acceptance of how to behave.
We know that Jesus faced this sort of attitude from people of his time, because we have the example of the rich young ruler who says to Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark ch 10).
When Jesus says ‘you know the commandments..’ the young man says ‘I’ve kept all those’.
But when Jesus says ‘then give everything you have to the poor’ he goes away saddened, because he can’t bear to do that.
He didn’t realize that the law to care for the poor might actually extend to giving up his own wealth. He thought there was a limit to the law.
But here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear ‘you must be perfect, as God is perfect’. Our following of God’s way cannot have a limit, any more than God’s love has a limit.
Maybe Jesus’ slap in the face is meant to bring us to our senses.
I will love my friends but hate my enemies ….slap
I will love those who love me..slap
I will be good to those who are like me…slap
In God’s kingdom we are expected to do better than that!
Of course Jesus doesn’t just talk about accepting a slap in the face: he will practice what he preaches.
As we follow Jesus into Lent to the cross we will find that following his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane the officers holding him will spit at him and slap him in the face. Jesus will not fight back, and we will be inspired by his example of self-sacrifice on the cross & then transformed by God’s love greater than death as we celebrate resurrection.
This is the perfection, the goal and the end of Jesus’ life: to bring us into the reality of God’s love in God’s kingdom, so that we may be part of that love and that kingdom.
May that love so fill us that we will be more the people God has made us to be – following Jesus, perfectly, to the end.