We might first think that seeking to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is designed to frustrate us. How is that possible? The Father is God and without flaw or weakness. Another reaction might be relief. If perfection means doing all things well then it is clearly impossible for us and the Sermon on the Mount with its strange blessings and bewildering reversals of expectations contains just suggestions and perhaps a prospectus for the hereafter but is not meant to be seriously attempted.
In both cases, we should pause for a moment. The good news of Jesus is for our own good both as a community and as individuals here and now. When I find that any part of the gospel seems irrelevant, I assume that I must dig deeper to understand. This is a great example. Translating the Greek word telos as perfect is not completely wrong but it is inadequate. It is better understood as “complete” or “whole“. The Father’s perfection is that he cares for all people, the whole of humanity. Our perfection must be the same, to love everyone. The two sections from the Sermon on the Mount which we read today are the most difficult but reveal why this is most necessary for individual completeness but more importantly for that of the church.
Limited carnage was one of history’s great moral victories. Primitive societies were marked by blood feuds and unlimited revenge. To limit retribution to just what was lost was a great advance. Well before the time of Jesus this was changed to financial compensation, but the idea was the same. Justice demands retribution. Jesus is telling us that love does not. His examples, although of his time, are nonetheless compelling.
A right-handed person strikes on the right cheek by using the back of his hand. Because it was less physically painful than a solid blow it was considered an insult for the sake of insulting. The aggressor assumes a superior position to the other. If the receiver of the blow did not fight back, he accepted his inferiority. Jesus tells him to let his aggressor strike the other one as well.
Jews wore two garments. An inner one – tunic – and an outer one – cloak. The tunic could be collateral for a loan but because the cloak was needed for warmth in the evening could not. It is doubtful that a tunic was often used to secure a loan, but the principle was that people had the right to the necessities of life. Jesus is telling us that we have rights but should not automatically exercise them.
The most difficult of these examples is to go the extra mile. A Roman soldier could command a non-citizen to carry his equipment for one mile. This was hated by all occupied people. Jesus commands his disciples not only to do so but to give more than is asked. This will be made clearer by Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross. Jesus completes this section with a command to give without asking questions.
The purpose for this as for virtually everything in Matthew’s Gospel is to bring together a divided church. Matthew, like all pastors, has seen his share of insults between community members, discussions of who has given more both in goods and time and who is owed what. He knows its destructiveness and is telling his people that they must go beyond justice to build a church that looks like Jesus.
The Jews were explicitly told that they must love their fellow Jews and as they were often in conflict with other nations hatred of their opponents came almost naturally. Jesus requires them to treat all as family. Many rabbis of Jesus’ day would have agreed but Jesus makes this a commandment not a suggestion. He assumes persecution but reminds those who wish to follow him that their righteousness must exceed those who do not know him. Their model must be God himself. The heavenly Father sends rain and sun, symbols of love, on both the just and unjust. His love is complete and full. How is ours? Tax collectors were by definition morally corrupt people but loved those who loved them. Everyone treats those who recognize them well. We are expected to do more.
For Matthew this is necessary for a healthy church indeed for any family or group. There are people we just don’t like. If this is within our own natural families, it is difficult enough to bear but most times we at least try. From the beginning the early church was considered a family and Matthew insists that disciples treat each other as family members. We are mutually non-negotiable. If relatives do not love those who don’t love them or perhaps even take pleasure in annoying each other the family will die. This is sad but sometimes a necessary evil. But a dead church is an abomination and Matthew knows that it is not impossible. Note his concern about greeting people. Failure to recognize each other is like the idiot lights on a dashboard, you are in trouble, and it is probably too late to avoid disaster.
Matthew places the comment about perfection at the end of the section for a reason. To be a perfect – complete – Christian a disciple must show love which is not highjacked by anger or lust, that is committed to one’s relationships especially marriage, that is true to one’s word and that seeks the best for everyone including one’s enemies. These virtues also mark a perfect – complete – Christian community. Conflicts are to be expected and difficulties will occur, but they can be transcended by a love that sees Jesus in everyone.
Lent begins this week. It is the perfect time to ask ourselves how complete we are as individuals but also as a family and as a parish. Reading the sermon on the mount has shown us how to make the perfect love of Jesus and each other our guide and goal.