Righteousness is Complete Love - Sermon 4 of 4: Matthews 5:38-48


Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Matthew 5:38-48 - [Jesus said to his disciples] "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 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 makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Grace, Mercy, and Peace are yours from the Triune God … even though you are not perfect.

I have to start there because that one word - perfect – has the power to overshadow every other important teaching in today’s reading, and in this whole sermon series.

I use the word over-shadow deliberately, because we are in the seventh Sunday of Epiphany, which means we have been talking about light for a month and a half: the revelation of light, and the promise of light, and the call to be light… and that is all wonderful, and inspirational, until we hear this command to “be perfect” like God is perfect, and it feels like a dark storm cloud blocking the sun and trapping us in a cold, grey shadow.

How can we possibly be perfect? And what ever happened to grace?

For four weeks now we have been mining the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount in search of the meaning of righteousness. We have been trying to get past a purely moralistic understanding of that term to understand why Jesus – the one who came to save us by grace through faith – spends so much time in Matthew’s gospel talking about righteousness, a topic that seems to imply that grace isn’t enough, that we need to somehow earn God’s favor.

And so we have been unpacking this term:

We’ve seen how Jesus starts with a pronouncement of blessing on the least expected people – showing us that righteousness is empowerment to live according to the counter-cultural ways of God’s kingdom.

We’ve seen how righteousness is not about the outward show of piety, but rather righteousness is purposeful – it is connected to the kingdom goals of justice and mercy being fulfilled in our world.

And last week, we saw how this kingdom purpose gets lived out in relationships. Righteousness is lived in the way we treat each other with reconciliation, respect, protection, and honesty.

All of these steps in Jesus’ best known sermon have moved us past an understanding of righteousness as demonstrably faultless behavior… but then we get today’s reading, and in the last verse Jesus sums up everything he has been saying with these shadow-casting words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

Or… maybe he doesn’t really say that! The bible was not written in English, which means that the English version we read is a translation, and because of the variations between languages the translators depend on inadequate English vocabulary to convey ideas we don’t necessarily have a word for in English.

In this case, the original Greek word is τέλειος (téleios), which can be translated a number of different ways, none of which means “making no mistakes” – it really means something closer to wholeness, or completion. If we look at the various ways that téleios is used throughout the New Testament,[1] we see that it is frequently translated as “mature,” in describing consistent or Christ-like faith.[2] Moreover, the root word, τέλος (telos), is used frequently in Matthew and elsewhere to refer to the end of times, or things coming to completion.[3] In fact, “complete” is perhaps a better translation of the word in this passage.

If you were to imagine the idea of téleios in terms of an orchestra performance, the point would not be to express the technical precision of every note being played with perfect pitch, rhythm, and tone, but rather téleios would describe the totality of the performance – the experience of coming to the end of the music and knowing it reflected the creative intention of the composer. But here, Jesus is talking about something much more profound than even the most moving musical performance – he is talking about how we live. He is calling us to fulfill the creative intention of our Composer.

The Common English Bible offers a translation that I think helps us understand more fully what Jesus is trying to teach us: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

Complete in Showing Love to Everyone. Perfect is about LOVE.

Which is why Jesus makes this call to perfection, to completeness, as the summary conclusion of his extended comparison between the outward righteousness of the religious elites and the integrity of purpose-driven, relational righteousness to which he calls his followers, including us.

Of course, completeness of love is not that much easier than "perfect," and the rest of this passage makes that very clear. Because complete love means we have to reject self-protection as a controlling standard for behavior.

We started to see that in last week’s gospel, but Jesus leaves us in no doubt today.

“Do not resist an evil doer”

“turn the other cheek”

“Give to EVERYONE who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

“love your enemies.”

We have heard that last phrase so often that perhaps it has lost some of the scandal, so let me make this very clear. Matthew’s audience was an oppressed people, suffering under the tyranny of an occupying empire that taxed them into poverty and had destroyed the Temple, the central symbol of their culture and faith. “The enemy” of Matthew’s original audience had an ugly and hated face and it was doing active harm.

And this does not let them off the hook.

The kind of complete love that Jesus calls us to does not end at the point where we might get hurt. Safety is NEVER an excuse for hatred.

That is truth that feels particularly important today, February 19, 2017. That is because 75 years ago today President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 – the order that set the stage for the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII, camps which scared our nation’s moral character, and showed the limits of our commitment to freedom and justice.

The justification for those camps was self-protection, the claim that the safety of Americans was threatened by the mere presence in their neighborhoods of people of Japanese descent. History has proven this threat was illusory, but for those who would follow Christ, that’s not even the point.

We don’t get a pass from loving our enemies – our genuine enemies, even those who would do us harm. Not in the 1st Century, and not in 1942, and not now. We are called to LOVE COMPLETELY – to recognize that there are no limits on the “neighbor” God calls us to love.

Which is why it is important to understand the kind of love that Jesus is calling us to live out. Jesus is NOT condemning us to passive victimhood masquerading as love, although these verses have been used to preach that understanding. They have been used to tell abused women that they are called to love their abusers by letting themselves get hit again; and these verses have been used to tell workers that their labor can be stolen without payment. Over and over they have been used to try to shame into compliance those who resist abuses of power.

But these verses come in the same Sermon on the Mount that promised in Jesus the fulfillment of the justice and mercy required by the law and the prophets. Complete love is not passivity in the face of abuse.

Rather, complete love looks like living according to the rules of God’s kingdom, even when that will make us some enemies. It is the righteous acceptance of risk that comes with standing FOR justice and mercy while rejecting the emotional shield of hatred against those who oppose justice, and audaciously believing that God’s kingdom of the heavens is already ours no matter what our circumstances look like.

That kind of audacious belief is the “foolishness” that is really God’s wisdom, which we have been hearing about in the readings from 1 Corinthians for over a month (1 Corinthians 1-3).

It is the kind of audacious faith that can only come from trusting the one who says to us – as we heard again and again in today’s reading from Leviticus (19:1-2, 9-18)– “I am the Lord your God," so do the risky things I am demanding of you because you know it is all in my hands.

It is the kind of audacious faith that sees a world where righteous and unrighteous both get rain and sun, and we can’t see a just system of reward and punishments operating, and we desperately want to know why, but still we trust our Jesus.

It is the kind of audacious faith that ONLY comes by GRACE.

Because true righteousness is the CONSEQUENCE, not the source of our salvation. As summarized by on Luther scholar: “Truly good works arise out of the re-created person who trusts Christ and therefore has been freed to live a God-pleasing life.”[4]

Righteous is empowerment, and it is purposeful, and it is relational, and it calls us to radical, courageous, counter-cultural love that accepts the risks inherent in standing up for justice and mercy.

And we can practice that kind of righteous love, because God first loved us. “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

Thanks be to God. Amen

[1] The only other use in Matthew is in 19:16-22 in the account of the rich young ruler who seeks guidance from Jesus on what he is lacking, even though he has followed the commandments. In response, Jesus tells him that if he wishes to be téleios, he must sell all that he has, give it to the poor, and come follow Jesus.

[2] See: 1 Cor. 2:6, 14:20; Heb. 5:4; Col. 1:28, 4:12; Phl. 3:5

[3] See: Matt. 10:22, 24:6, 13, 14, 26:58; Mk 13:7, 13; Lk. 21:9; 1 Cor. 1:8, 10:11, 15:24, 1 Thes. 2:16, Heb 3:14.

[4] Robert Kolb, “God’s Word Produces Faith and Fruit: Reflections from Luther’s Understanding of the Sermon on the Mounty,” Concordia Journal/Summer 2014, p. 217.

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