Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.
The phrases of the Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and beautiful we can almost forget how demanding they are. “Turn the other cheek.” “Go to the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How lovely…and how impossible.
Today WHO can be perfect? It is easier to be mean, hold grudges, and ignore those in need. If I give to everyone who begs, I will have nothing left for myself. If I turn the other cheek, I will get slapped again. If I get sued, I am hiring the best lawyer I can afford to find a loophole in my favor. If I love my enemies, I will be more persecuted or even killed. If I am too nice, I will be seen as weak, a pushover, or a doormat.
“Be perfect” it is a far cry from normal human capability. Jesus himself pushes against what we imagined perfection to be when he upsets the social order and religious customs. He touches those he shouldn’t, heals when he’s not supposed to, and dies without leading the violent takeover that many of his followers might have preferred. Jesus, in many ways, did not live up to expectations, but in his imperfect life and violent death he shows us a better meaning of perfection. One of my go-to song in the car is “All of me” by John Legend, and the lyric goes “'Cause all of me loves all of you, Love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections…”
And with the words of today’s text, Jesus seeks neither to set impossible goals nor to shame people who cannot reach perfection. Instead, he sets forth God’s vision of God’s world, where love, genuine and unconditional, reigns. The reign of God is inaugurated in the person of Jesus, and we, Jesus’ followers, are empowered by Jesus’ witness to live the reign of God’s values.
This text carries two challenges;
First, Jesus teaches about life in God’s realm. God’s community is filled with people who think of others first. Every decision and action is carried out for the common good. Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love. The capacity for this kind of love is due to the empowering love given by God, who is love. We are able to be gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous because we are children of God who showers with abundant grace, mercy, love, and protection. Those who know God’s love now can love their enemies; those who experience God’s forgiveness now can forgive those who persecute them; those who claim God’s gift of generosity can now give back to those who have little or nothing. We are able to do these things because in Jesus we live in the days of God’s reign.
Second, Jesus lets his listeners know that he himself embodies these values. He moves us from “you have heard that it was said” to “but I say to you.” We no longer have to rely solely on the written word to understand God and God’s will for creation. We simply have to look at and listen to Jesus. Because of Jesus, God’s realm is already present and moving toward its fulfillment. Within us already are the marks of those fully embraces by God and empowered by God’s will. Jesus calls us to maturity that results in more Godlike behaviors and motivations.
Today we are caught in the tension between human nature and being children of God. To be perfect is not to add pressure to already overwhelmed lives; instead, it is to assure us that we are not alone in the world and that God continues to work in and through us. Perfection is less about getting things right and more about loving as God lives, and Jesus is God’s concrete example of that love.
We are called here to love as God loves. This cannot be done out of our own resources. The Sermon here and elsewhere is a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend, love the enemy-because that is how God loves. If you want to follow this God, fleshes in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing.
Why would Jesus command such a thing if it were impossible? Sure enough, many saints often experienced full sanctification upon their death. Why shouldn’t we try to do this while we are living? A day earlier? Or a year? “Be perfect” is not and indictment it is a promise that carried the possibility that we may love the world as God loved us-fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.
I would like to finish with a blessing by John O’Donohue…