Did you ever wonder how to be perfect? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. All you have to do is follow all six of these rules that are laid out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, no hotheaded words, lust, hatred, and, as the passage concludes, you will be perfect.
Now I don’t know about you, but I need to hear some good news! This passage from the fifth chapter of Matthew is known conventionally as “the Antitheses.” It was first named, best guess that we have, by an early Christian named Marcion, after whom we also named one of the earliest Christian heresies. It was Marcion’s goal to purge the Bible of all that was Jewish about it. He cut out the Old Testament right off the bat, and then he put out a revised version of what he thought was the original words of the New Testament. Obviously, his history classes weren’t very good, because he left Jesus and Paul in there. The Marcionite heresy has reared its head again and again, most horrifically in Nazi Germany, when the German church attempted to do the same thing - to purge the Bible of all that was Jewish, while the German state attempted to purge the world of all that was Jewish.
At the core of Marcion’s idea was to decide, based upon his assumptions, what the canon within the canon was, what the Bible within the Bible was. And thus the heresy. He called these the antitheses because of his version of verse seventeen. Our version reads: Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets.” Marcion’s Jewish-free version reads: “I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” And so, each of these antitheses to Marcion rendered null and void the Jewish law and replaced it with a better, purer, Christian law.
Well, I have news. These are not antitheses. Jesus is not annulling the earlier version. What we have here are six laws, some of them from the Old Testament, some from other places in Hebrew scripture, some simply accepted as widely regarded teaching, and some are from the Ten Commandments. These are the six laws after which Jesus says, “But I say to you . . .” and replaces it. But he doesn’t replace it, he takes each of these to a different, deeper level. In some ways it’s like he is raising the bar. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote that the law that had been inscribed on the tablets would be inscribed on our hearts. Or the apostle Paul writing about the rule of circumcision saying that the important circumcision is not of the flesh, it is the circumcision of the heart. So Jesus gives the root, placing these very public offenses into a very private, heartfelt place. Let’s go through them one by one.
The first one is murder, as in, “thou shalt not commit.” At its root, we learn from Jesus saying, “But I say to you . . .” that murder is a denial, or a devaluation, of the other. Anyone who calls another a fool or who calls one a raca, in Greek - in English the best translation is “empty head” - is just as condemnable for their mockery and for their abuse.
Second is adultery. At its root is this lust that objectifies one and destroys many. Divorce is third. We’ll come back to divorce. Not because we should skip it, because to do so would create our own form of a Marcionite heresy. But because while the rest of these are, in some sense, very private, divorce is quite public. We need more time to digest that one.
Fourth. Bearing false witness. Again, as in “thou shalt not.” At the heart of bearing false witness, we see from Jesus, that swearing by things in God’s creation aren’t ours to swear by. You do not swear by the heavens for it is God’s throne; you do not swear by the earth for it is God’s foot stool. It isn’t ours to promise. The only thing that is ours to promise is a simple yes or a simple no.
Fifth is retaliation. Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now we need to understand what came before this ancient Jewish law was this understanding in the Ancient Near East and the culture that surrounded Israel that it was a brother for my eye, and a village for my tooth. It was all out and out destruction. And so this Jewish law, brings it to a new level of restraint. Jesus takes it one step further. Because he reveals its heart by letting us know that the turning of cheeks is a witness first and foremost to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” except we are to do unto others after they have already done to us.
And so the same goes for the sixth: loving enemies. Take the upper hand. Establish a new law; the one that is written on your heart, with the one who despises you.
Now we go back to divorce. We take a little more time with it not because it’s worse, but because we are tempted to skip right over it. First of all, it is a public event. I am aware that in this community we have members who serve this church faithfully and well, who are divorced. That being said, I am also aware that we have members who fall short somewhere between five and five of the other five. An afternoon commute on the Downtown Connector will take care of four right there. Divorce, at its root, is the breaking of a public vow. It happens, and it will continue to happen, as long as we remain a broken, imperfect people.
I share a story with permission from a friend of mine, who’s a pastor that I went to divinity school with. He was talking about his recent divorce. We talked about it in the context of this Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You know, I know that the divorce was the right thing. Marriage is a human institution, not a sacrament, and at best, it’s imperfect and we enter into for all kinds of the wrong reasons. But at the same time, I also knew that I had made a promise in front of all of those people, and I said ‘until death do we part.’ And to break that vow showed my weakness. It showed my imperfection and it reminded me that I, too, need God’s grace.” And so it goes for the other five. Divorce is no better or worse than refusing to give up all your clothing to someone who asks you for your coat.
It is our failure to comply, our inability to follow through with these steps towards achieving perfection - and I’m pretty confident that none of us have complied with all of these rules - that demonstrates our own imperfection. We are imperfect. As we read the last verse of that passage where Jesus says, “You will be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” it takes us in two directions.
The first is the first half of that - “you will be perfect” - because it leaves us in that wonderfully Protestant place, knowing that we have done everything in our power to achieve perfection on our own, and we have failed, leaving us broken, repentant. This is the good news that Marcion and his heresy so desperately wanted to change. Jesus says, in the passage that precedes these verses, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And so these six steps to perfection have been fulfilled by the very one who outlined them in the first place. And so the good news is that we have failed. We are not God. Praise God! That’s one point.
But there’s another point at work here. Because there’s something in us that wants to respond to this anyway. There’s something in us that calls to us with this desire to live better lives. To try and stitch together an ethic out of all of this that hears that law written on our hearts and responds with our lives. At different times and in different places, we can think of examples of Christians who have done this. Turning the other cheek became a way of life for Martin Luther King and others who preached non-violence; it also became a way of death.
I remember an interview on a panel, where the topic was: what do you do when someone asks you for money on the streets. There were a variety of responses from a variety of folks - pastors, economists, ethicists. The one response I remember came from former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who just passed away this week.
The interviewer asked him, “What would you do if someone came up to you and asked you for money?”
He said, “I’d give it to them if I had it.”
He said, “Yes, everyone, because I’m commanded to do so by my faith.”
Now there are certain groups within the Christian tradition who owe their roots to the Anabaptist tradition, who refuse to swear in court, because their yes and their no should be good enough. I remember my grandfather, who remembered very little of the Bible, but he could quote verse 22 from Matthew 5, by heart. That was the worst sin of all in his mind, to call another person a “fool,” and I remember being pulled aside and corrected.
There’s something in this that calls us to a higher standard, something that is placed on our hearts. There’s something that we are responding to. It seems that at the root of all of this, is the value that is emphasized in section number six. Love. Unconditional, agape, love. It is this love that is meant to replace anger and heated words. It is unconditional love that should stand where lust, erotic love, stands. Broken promises and falsehood should give way to this love. As should violence, greed, and hatred. We are called to be creatures of love, because we are called to be in relationship with one another in a particular way. Each of these six rules are about relationships. We are, before we are anything - husband and wife, neighbor, enemy, member, elder, deacon, pastor, friend - before all of these relationships, we are brothers and sisters. Because, first and foremost, we are children of God.
And that, too, is good news, because when we look at the second half of that final verse, the one that calls us to perfection and leads us to a place where we know that we fall short, the second half reminds us that we have a perfect heavenly parent. Ours is a god who is perfect, who created us, by virtue of our very being, by carving the law on our very hearts, by calling us salt and light - created us for good works. We are called to good works, rooted in that love, that unconditional love, that strives to undergird everything that we do. But above all, we have a perfect heavenly parent whose grace, despite our every failing and stumbling, surrounds us with good news. We have a perfect heavenly parent whose love, despite our every imperfection, is perfectly unconditional.
How can we be perfect? We can’t. And that’s good news. Because then we have no choice but to trust that God is guiding us, strengthening us, gracing us, surrounding us, loving us, forgiving us. And that’s as close to perfect as it gets.