“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What’s the first thing you say to yourself when you hear Jesus say “You must be perfect?” If you are at all like me, the first thing you say to yourself is something like “That is never going to happen.”
If we are at all self-aware, I imagine we find this more than a little daunting. Even discouraging. How in the world can I, a person with deep flaws and failures, ever be perfect?
And yet this is the very summation of the various teachings we hear in this part of Jesus’s famed sermon on the Mount. It encapsulates everything that our Lord has said in today’s reading. So how can we understand this outrageous demand, to be perfect?
Well, there is a lot we can learn from today’s reading, if we are aware of the background to what our Lord teaches. We are also going to have to learn some Greek, so bear with me, because if we can come to understand this background better, we might also better understand how we are to be perfect.
Just as in last week’s reading, Jesus opposes his own authoritative teaching to what “you have heard that it was said,” that is, conventional ethical teachings of long-standing currency. In today’s passage, I want to focus on the first of these: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This is a piece of proverbial wisdom that Jesus intends to subvert.
“An eye for an eye” is indeed a long-standing ethical principle. It is at least as old as the Code of Hammurabi from ancient Babylon, a slate of juridical rules written down a full 1,750 years before Jesus’s birth. It is found also in the law given to Moses and proclaimed to Israel, so a version of it would have been familiar to anyone in Jesus’s hearing during this teaching.
I don’t have time to get into this, but I think the Mosaic “An eye for an eye” has been grossly misunderstood. Contrary to what you might have read on a bumper sticker, the principle of “An eye for an eye” in the Hebrew Bible represents substantial moral progress in human history. This principle means if I am the victim of a crime I am entitled to certain rights; I am entitled to see a fair and proportional punishment visited on the criminal by a duly constituted authority, even if that criminal is powerful or rich or important, and I am not. But Jesus says we should not insist on these rights. And he gives three examples from three different settings to illustrate his point.
First, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” How would you get struck on the right cheek? Assuming that your assailant is right-handed there are only two ways: Either someone has slapped you with their left hand or with the back of their right hand. Both of these gestures in ancient Near Eastern culture are a profound insult. This teaching is not about assault or about physical violence; it’s about being humiliated. It’s about disgrace. And the same is actually true of the other examples our Lord gives about what he means by not resisting an evil person.
Second, “If someone sues you and takes your coat, let him have your cloak as well.” Now the Greek word translated as coat here is a chiton and that’s a person’s inner garment, it’s what you wear under your cloak, himation in Greek, which is your outer garment. Under the law of Moses, you can’t be sued out of your outer garment, you can’t be forced to give up your himation, because your outer garment is what you need to keep warm, and if you are really poor you might even have to sleep in it as a blanket. But Jesus says even though it’s your right to keep your outer garment, if someone takes your inner garment, your chiton, as part of a legal settlement against you then give him the outer garment, the himation, as well. Again this is about enduring humiliation: If I have lost both my inner and outer garment then I am truly left with nothing, naked, reduced, disgraced.
Finally, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Here especially it helps to know the background of what Jesus is talking about. Whatever does he mean? The word translated here as “force to go” is just one word in Greek, and sometimes it’s rendered as “compel to go” or even “press into service.” Jesus is referring to a practice common among Roman centurions when stationed in occupied colonies like Israel. To remind the locals of their subjection to the authority of Rome, a centurion could press any bystander he liked into service, forcing them to carry his pack a mile. This too was less about violence and more about forced humiliation; to have an occupying enemy soldier make you carry his bag was a painful reminder of your subordinate status.
So where does that leave us? I have a friend who is a New Testament ethicist, and he likes to say that the great thing about the Sermon on the Mount is that if a Roman centurion ever asks me to carry his pack I will know just what to do. If only it were that easy.
The Sermon on the Mount though does not give us a tidy set of rules that explain how to successfully navigate the world. It gives us a challenge to live in the kingdom of God, to live as the peculiar people as Fr. Sammy said last week, a people who don’t conform to society’s existing moral expectations, a people not at home in the world.
And to help us be that peculiar people, to help us live the kingdom of God, I think more important than any set of rules we might distill from the Sermon on the Mount is the example provided for us by the man who spoke the Sermon.
For where in Scripture do we find someone who takes a slap to the face without retaliating? How about Matthew 26: “Then the soldiers spat in his face, and struck him, and some slapped him.” This is Jesus, on his way to the cross. Or how about John 19: “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic.” They took his himation, his outer garment, and cut it into four parts. They also took his chiton, his inner garment. Exact same Greek words. And what about the one other time that Matthew says someone was “forced to go” somewhere by Roman soldiers? That someone was Simon of Cyrene. The Roman soldiers forced him to go all the way to Golgotha, and the pack they made him carry was nothing other than the cross of Christ.
They humiliated Jesus every way they knew how. They slapped him in the face. They stripped him of all his clothes. They took Simon of Cyrene, a righteous Jew on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and forced him to be their servant and carry our Lord’s burden.
Jesus put up with that because he was being perfect, as his Father in heaven is perfect. Because that was his one, overriding goal. To be perfect. And he reaches that goal when he utters his final words from the cross: It is finished.
Here’s the key: The same word lies at the root of both of Jesus’s sayings. When Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect” that’s the same root word in “perfect” as the root word in “finished” when he says, “It is finished.”
And why is that? Because in Greek perfection is not flawlessness but completion; to be perfect is to have attained your purpose, to be what you are meant to be. To be perfect is to be finished in the sense that nothing more can be done. Think of a perfect painting; it is finished when one more dab of paint would ruin it, when one more brush stroke would be one too many.
God is not perfect because God has successfully followed all the rules of ethics. God is perfect because God’s work is done. On the cross, God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, finished the job. He attained his purpose. His work is perfect. He has done exactly what he preached we should do in the Sermon on the Mount.
And now it is our task to bring that perfection into our own lives. It is our task to become like God, remembering that perfection is not measured by flawless success at abiding by moral rules. Perfection is measured by the nature of God. We get nervous and discouraged when we hear “You must be perfect” because we think perfect means never making a moral mistake, which we do all the time. But this is not what it means.
What it means is we are to be like Christ, who has shown us on the cross what perfection is. If we walk in his way, if we take the world’s abuse as he did, then we are already moving toward perfection. And God has promised that the work begun in us, in our admittedly imperfect little lives here and now, is a work that will be finished. We are not perfect now; you and I are unfinished creatures. But Christ’s work is finished, and his work in us will be finished. So when you hear that you must be perfect don’t say to yourself, “That is never going to happen.” Because by the grace of God it will. Amen.