Perfection [Epiphany 7A - Matthew 5:38-48]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 5:38-48


Jesus comes up with some doozies – and this is a pretty good one: Be perfect; Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.  Now what do we do with that? Perfection is perhaps my biggest stumbling block.  I would love to be great at everything: the perfect father, perfect husband, perfect priest, perfect person.  But I'm not.  And the older I get, the more I realize that.

Of course, what I mean by perfect is almost never what Jesus means.  I guess when I think about perfection it means: no mistakes, no embarrassing moments.  It means always having the best ideas and making the correct decisions.  It means coasting through life while everyone else is busy muddling through.  It means admiration, praise, and maybe even a little justifiable envy in the eyes of all who encounter me.  I think I might just like perfection; it seems like it would be good for me.  So, what will it take?  What will it take to be perfect?

The folks who heard Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount, from which we heard an excerpt today, were average people – peasants, laborers.  They were not powerful or great.  They were certainly not perfect.  But they saw something in Jesus.  They saw potential, maybe greatness.  And so they followed.  And listened for clues. 

They heard Jesus talk about his kingdom.  That's Messianic talk.  And they were ready, ready to rise up, ready to put the Romans in their place.  They were ready to follow the one, the one who would lead the revolution.  And Jesus talked about a new kingdom – and they saw the signs and the healings.

And so they followed and they listened.  In this sermon, to crowds of eager, curious, desperate people, Jesus laid out the blueprint for the revolution, the way of his kingdom, but it was nothing the crowd expected.  Probably it was just about the opposite of what many had hoped to hear.  

The people were ready to overthrow the government.  They were ready to start the war.  And eventually they would.  The Jewish revolt against the Empire some decades later would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths, a Jewish defeat, and the destruction of the Temple.  But it was not Jesus' revolution.  And as those in Jesus' audience, those with him on the mount, would discover, it was not Jesus' way.

This revolution, Jesus' revolution, would come without violence.  And in many ways, from many perspectives, it would be humiliating.  And worst of all those horrible Roman soldiers, the enemy, would experience only the fury of undeserved love. 

Jesus' sermon is given in the context of Empire – from one occupied person to a crowd of occupied people.  And the sermon only makes sense from that perspective.  Because in its context Jesus' expectations are as shocking as they are challenging. 

Let's take for example Jesus' command: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  This has become something of a generic motivational catchphrase - “go the extra mile.”  But there is, of course, much more to it.  In the Empire, a Roman soldier was permitted to force an occupied person, in this case a Jew, to carry his pack for one mile.  The soldier was permitted to do this because, well, the Jews were less important than Roman soldiers and important people tell less important people what to do.  That is how the world often works. 

To the Roman soldier, and to the Empire, that Jew might as well have been an animal, a donkey, a beast of burden – not a really person.  This was a way to publicly humiliate and intentionally dehumanize.  It was like a white person sending a black person to the back of the bus.  Or like a business owner refusing to serve gays and lesbians in the name of religious freedom.  It was a way that the one with power could use that privilege to make another person feel less human – to embarrass and belittle them.  It was one of those small ways that the one with power keeps that power. 

So of course, the Jews listening to Jesus would hate the practice and despise the soldiers who exploited them.  And yet Jesus tells his followers to keep carrying the pack – to continue to voluntarily do something humiliating, something dehumanizing.  Why would Jesus do this?  Well, there was a limitation to what the soldier could require.  A soldier could only require one mile; to do otherwise might earn the soldier a punishment.  And so carrying the extra mile was a form of non-violent resistance.  It was clever and subversive in a way that did not require one to take up arms.

But in the context of Jesus' sermon, I think there is more to it.  Because Jesus doesn't command his followers to shame their enemies.  Jesus requires his followers to love their enemies. 

By choosing to carry the pack an extra mile, the one being humiliated asserts his or her humanity – denies the oppressor's attempt to dehumanize. Walter Wink says, “[Jesus] is formulating a worldly spirituality in which  the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”[1]  It is a powerful action; the enemy's salvation depends on his ability to recognize their common humanity.  That can only happen in the second mile – when the walk becomes a choice – an act of defiant and unexpected kindness.  In that extra mile, both the oppressor and the oppressed become more human by the power of love – love showed to an enemy.  Only by the power of perfect love can one look into the face of the “enemy” and see a human being – equally in need of, and worthy of, God's grace.  

The values of the kingdom of God are so contrary to our own human tendencies, that they are offensive.  The Jews listening to Jesus speak had enemies – enemies they wanted to destroy, enemies who had mistreated, exploited, and embarrassed them.  And so they are no different from us.  All of us have our line that we just cannot cross – the person or people in whom we are unwilling to see the image of God

But Jesus has this dream – a dream of God's kingdom – a kingdom in which the revolutionaries will be armed only with love – the kind of love that has no line, the kind of love that knows no enemy.  Because only that kind of love has the power to transform hearts. 

I am amazed at the capacity of love to change a human being.  Guns can't do that.  Bombs can't do that.  Force can't do that.  It is an amazing miracle – a miracle we so often take for granted.  And it changes both the giver and the receiver.  In an encounter with love nothing stays the same.  When I love another human being – when I see in that other the face of God – that other person becomes more human – more human because they are loved.  When I love another human being – when I risk my heart for another person – I am transformed as well.  I become more like my Heavenly Parent – a little closer to perfection.  

Which is what Jesus wants; he wants us to be perfect.  But perfection for Jesus is about one thing, the one thing he truly values: love.  Love that risks humiliation; love that draws no lines.  Love that sees in the face of friend, stranger, and enemy the image of God. 

This is what the revolution looks like.  It looks very human in a world that is inhumane.  We are called to the most revolutionary task of all – to respect the dignity of every human being.  It is the most human thing we can do.  And, it turns out, it is also the most divine.