“Be Perfect”… and Other Hard Sayings of Jesus

Mathew 5:38-48     7th Sunday after Epiphany

Over the years I’ve heard any number of Bible verses quoted outside their immediate context (and expect I have done this myself more than once). One example that is often cited as a joke goes something like this…”Judas hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5) “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27). We can take verses out of context and get them to say something very different than what the author originally intended.

Considering this, it may help to set these first words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew into their primary context, specifically laws concerning retaliation. The opening words of our Lord find their Old Testament context in the giving of the Law in the book of Exodus; 23:23-25, “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.… Although the words seem harsh to us 21st C moderns (except perhaps for extreme forms of Sharia Law being practiced in Saudi Arabia or Iraq), they were in fact more merciful than vengeful when they were first given to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land.  Let me explain.

If you’ve read the book of Genesis, you may be familiar with acts of retaliation there. Hear the words of Lamech in Genesis chapter 4 as he boasts to his wives: “Adah and Zillah,” (just for clarification, just because the Bible “describes” something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it “prescribes” that same thing. The Bible never prescribes polygamy, even though people like Lamech practiced it.) ”Hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold. (Genesis 4:23-24). In contrast to this practice of extreme retaliation, this law given in Exodus (often referred to by its Latin name, lex talionis) limits retaliation to that which has been incurred. If someone takes out an eye, no more than an eye can be taken from the offender. These laws however were not mandatory (and there is little evidence the people of Israel ever did this), but they did set the upper limits in regards to retaliation.

Jesus takes these laws and expands them even further. Now rather than exacting degrees of punishment for crimes committed, Jesus bids his followers to not to resist evil-doers, and rather than return strike for strike (or more likely here, insult for insult, as striking the right cheek was understood more in the context of insult rather than injury), the Christian is to forgo his “right” to insult in return. Truth be known, when we are called to follow Jesus, we forfeit much in the way of personal rights. St Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price, therefor honour God with your body” 1 Cor 6:20.  The martyred Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, states something similar, “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die” For the sake of Christ, and as modeled by him, we are to take an insult for his name and in his service, and to resist from insulting in return.

It’s important here that we place these few words in the context of the entire passage, “do not resist an evildoer”.  This phrase refers to how to respond to someone who insults you personally. This cannot be extrapolated to mean that Christians should never resist evildoers in any or all circumstances. We are all too aware of cases where bystanders have stood and watched idly where others were being attacked and/or victimized by “evildoers”. Jesus in no way condones such behavior. We are in fact our “brother’s keeper”, and as such are always called to come to their aid in times of trouble. This is a rather complex discussion, and needs more than one paragraph in a sermon to address it fully.

The references to “losing ones shirt”, and “going the extra mile”, have historic context as well. At this time in history, people were allowed to sue another for the “shirt off their back”, but were not allowed to sue for the outer cloak that doubled for the very poor as a blanket during the night. The reference to the “extra mile”, refers to the compulsory duty owed to a Roman soldier from Jewish citizens. As an occupied nation, Roman solders could command any Jew to carry his burden for one mile (or 1000 steps). Let’s use the analogy of an older sibling to bring the example a little closer to home, who had the power to force you to carry their school books for 1000 steps.  You can bet most of us would be counting each and every one of those steps, and when our foot hit ground on number 1000…the books would be dropped right there and then. Jesus bids his disciples not to hold fast to their “rights” and basic dignities for the sake of love and the gospel…even when we think there are no steps left in us.

The context for the lending laws at the time of Jesus, saw repayment being owed the lender (without interest), but on the 7th year, debts where to be forgiven, “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD’S remission has been proclaimed.… Deut.15:1,2. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a person might be a tad hesitant to lend money or goods to anyone on year six or seven with hope of full repayment. The Christian was to go over and above the letter of law of the 7th year, and give generously to those in need whenever that need might be present. Many a tension has resulted in lending to others when debts are not repaid. Few come from giving freely with no expectation of repayment.

The “bar” set for the disciple of Jesus seems to be raised higher and higher, with them now being called to a new measure of love extending even to one’s enemies. I am not aware of a direct command in the OT to “hate your enemies” (although it may be implied in places), so this may well be a reference to some of the interpretations of the Pharisees in the Mishna (commentary on the Torah). The OT actually contains many laws and admonitions to love and do good to strangers (even enemies)

Exo 23:4,5  “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it.  If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.

Pro 25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. 

Pro 24:17 “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,

Yesterday I was listening to a Ravi Zacharias podcast that put this verse of loving one’s enemies into a very specific, personal context. Hear the story in Ravi’s own words, and see if this doesn’t leave you a bit short of breath (“Through Conflict and Crisis”, part 2). Jesus cites a truism that we know well, it’s easy to love and do good to people who love and do good to you in return. To love even one’s enemies comes not so much from within… but from above.

The text ends with what seems to be a “deal breaker” for anyone who knows themselves even a little, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here’s where many simply throw their hands in surrender and say, “I give up”. It’s one thing to take an insult on one cheek and expose the other, or to give without hope of repayment, but to be perfect”. Now that’s going just a bit too far. Here it might be helpful to take a look at the actual Greek word τέλειος. That word carries with it a sense of completion, or having reached its endpoint. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message interprets it this way, 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.” I think that comes pretty close to the meaning of that word. Live as God created and desires you to live. Be all you were meant to be.

So there you have it. Some teachings of Jesus in their immediate and broader contexts. None of this is easy, but Jesus never promised it would be. With the call to discipleship the Holy Spirit supplies the resources needed to live out that call. So let’s do just that, and be all that God created and redeemed us to be…disciples of Jesus.  Amen







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