Today’s Gospel reading concludes Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus proclaimed the Law of the kingdom of God, the ideal of which can be summarized in this phrase: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) Jesus seems to be correcting the Law of God as it had been known by the Jews for a 1000 years! Five times, one after another, Jesus tells the crowd: “It was said, but I say to you!” (Matt. 5:21,27,31,33,38). It needed great courage on His part to correct Moses and the most sacred Jewish treasure, the very origin of their identity, the Law of God given to Moses.
But Jesus is not correcting Moses here. He is saying – it’s not enough to obey the Law, you have to WANT to obey the Law. I have been explaining this with my analogy of 10,000 steps. We can do it, check it continually, but we there’s nothing magical about the number 10,000 itself – one more than you did yesterday is better. Targets are fine, but your righteousness is not a matter of targets. To exceed the scribes and the Pharisees your motivation has to be there. Like everything else – it starts in your head.
Jesus wants to tell us about a new way of practicing the Law of God. The key to this new perspective, is to: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Not one of us here will ever be able to say, “Today I have been perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect!” but if we can never meet this standard why did Jesus place before us an ideal which is impossible for us?
I know I am not perfect: (perfectus) but the Greeks had a word for this: telios. It means more than perfect – its means complete, finished, mature. So we will never be perfect, but we can grow up: grow up in our faith —-like all men here this morning, I know I’ll get better with age, ripen like a good wine or a fine cheese. We find this theme of maturity- growing up- throughout the NT : Paul mentions this: at our Bible Study we read Ephesians 4:’Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching …instead we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head.’
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:
I gave you milk not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. In fact, you are still not ready.
Like Paul when we were children, we acted like children, but when grow up and we should put away childish things. And we know we are growing in our faith when our behaviour is mature, and we begin to show to others the same love God our father shows to us.
Fine words, but in today’s passage this Jesus gives us examples of how we should behave as mature Christians. Matthew 5:43-45:
It was said: You will love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’
In this sentence Jesus points out that the mentality with which the scribes explained the Law was an either/or mentality, resulting from the divisions among the Jews and the non-Jews, between neighbour and non-neighbour, between the clean and the unclean, between them and us. We define ourselves by our differences from others. Jesus tells us this must stop. He orders us to overcome divisions.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. So that you may be children of your Father in Heaven, for He causes His sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike.
Paul extends this in Galatians when he tells them:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God: and those who want to live in this Kingdom must behave as citizens of this kingdom. If God reigns as Father, well – He causes His sun to rise on the bad as well as the good. In Ephesians 4 Paul tells us to be ‘imitators of God’ and that’s what Jesus tells us here: to imitate this God: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). because by imitating God we can create God’s new society. Paul takes this further and tells us that if we are in Christ, we are a new humanity.
Well, you might not feel like a new human this morning, but Jesus tells us what this means:
But I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven who causes the sun to rise on the bad as well as on the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do as much? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Do not even the gentiles do as much? Therefore, be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48)
In the Kingdom, behaviour is all about love: that’s all you need. Love is the beginning and the end of everything. Jesus says there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s brother (John 15:13). Jesus imitated the Father and revealed His love. Every gesture, every word of Jesus, from His birth until the hour of His death on the cross was an expression of this creative love. This love of God does not discriminate against another because of race, sex, religion or social class, but wishes them well in a completely gratuitous way.
Even from the Cross, Jesus offered forgiveness to the soldiers who tortured Him and killed Him. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Lack of humanity in others did not extinguish the humanity in Jesus. They take Him, they mock Him, scoff Him, they make of Him a clown king with a crown of thorns on the head, they scourged Him, tortured Him, made Him walk on the streets as if He were a criminal. But their lack of humanity does not succeed in reaching the source of humanity which sprang from the Heart of Jesus. The water which sprang from within Jesus was stronger than the poison from without, wanting to contaminate everything. And Jesus even excuses them: ‘’They do not know what they are doing!” Do any of us ever know what we are doing?
Jesus says: “Love your enemies”. It’s a policy statement. Not “like” your enemies. Not “put up with” your enemies. I have to remember this when I watch the World Cup. I remember when Alf Ramsay called the Argentinians ‘animals’? Who are your enemies? Is it someone who wants your job? Is it personal or is it a vague group, like “immigrants”? Is it members of some other nation or state? Is it the woman with the screaming baby – or the next team we face in the World Cup? Do you treat these with love? It has to start with a change of personal attitude, a change in the way each one of us thinks. Paul tells us to be transformed by renewing our minds. Forgetting old prejudices, old ways of thinking. Then we can be a little better, start becoming a little more mature – growing up in Christ.