Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston & Mount Ayr, Iowa;
“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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would 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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38–48, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jesus says "perfect". He means perfect. It's not some halfhearted love he says you should have, but a love even for those who hate you. It's not some easy thing he asks here. He says to turn your other cheek to people who do evil to you. He says you are to love perfectly your ugly neighbor who takes you to court and wins. He says when people take advantage of you make it well worth their while. In the Roman Empire a soldier could conscript anyone to carry their equipment for a mile. So the application for the people hearing Jesus speak was very direct. No one was hated more by the Jews than the Roman soldiers, for good reason. Jesus tells the crowd that their love for the Roman soldiers should be perfect. He's asking a lot from sinful people. In fact, it is more than we can do. Why in the world doesn't he just say, "Do the best you can"?
Sometime after this, Jesus asks perfection of a specific person. A young man came up to him and asked him "what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16ff) Jesus says, "If you would enter life, keep the Commandments." The young man wants to be clear. "Which Commandments?" Jesus lists them all to him. The young man thinks he has it made. "I've done that, I've kept them all. Isn't there more?" And then Jesus says it. He uses the "P" word again. "If you would be perfect..." In other words, "you only think you done them all, you can't just do them all on the outside, you have to do them all perfectly from the heart." He does it by telling the young man to sell everything he has and give it all away, to the poor. He tells him that in order to be saved by what he does, his love for the poor is to be perfect. And being perfect, his love would show itself by caring more for the poor than all the possessions he has. It's more than the young man can do. He's rich. He walks away from Jesus dejected. And notice, Jesus doesn't let him off the hook with, "Do the best you can."
When you look into the face of God, the only way that you can stand is to be perfect. When you have a relationship with God, that relationship can only be sustained in the absence of sin. A perfect and holy God can only be in the presence of that which is perfect and holy. In other words "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." In the beginning, Adam, the very 1st person created by God, was perfect. He walked and talked with God in the Garden of Eden. When he violated his relationship with God by taking what God told him was not his to take, his perfection was lost, he became a sinful person. His perfect relationship with God was broken. And when God came into the garden he hid in fear from God's righteous anger. It is the appropriate place for imperfect, sinful, people. This is where Jesus demand for perfection puts us. On our knees, dejected, hiding in fear from God's righteous anger. "I a poor miserable sinner…"
The wording of the confession is very specific, very intentional. We confess the depth of our sin. We confess our broken relationship with God. We have sinned against him and thought, word, and deed. We violated the commandments defining our relationship with God, and the ones defining our relationships with other people. This is not what our sinful nature wants to do. "What good deed must I do to save myself? Can't I make this fear go away on my own?" Jesus still doesn't say, "It's okay, you did the best that you could." He answers the question. "All you have to be is perfect."
Well, that's not all that Jesus preaches, is it? Along with Jesus call for perfection is his call for repentance (Matthew 4:17). The beginning of repentance is confession of our sin. And the cry of repentance is "Lord, have mercy!" We turn to Jesus for mercy because there is nowhere else to turn. We cannot turn to ourselves because all that we find there is our failure to live up to God's perfect demand. But
Almighty God in his mercy has given his son to die for you and for his sake forgives you all your sins.
There is no "do the best you can" in God's pronouncement of forgiveness. There is no good deed done to gain eternal life. There is only God's mercy given to repentant sinners. Given for the sake of Jesus.
Jesus' demand for perfection is a demand he takes up himself. He lives his life loving his neighbors and his enemies. He gives himself completely for the sake of those who need what he has to give. He prays for those who are killing him. He turns his cheek to them and allows his beard to be pulled out and the crown of thorns to be smashed into his scalp. The depth of his love is unmistakable. It carries him to live a life for the sake of the people of the world. It carries him to die the death that all sinners deserve, but he does not. He goes to the cross in love. And in love he bears the sins of the whole world.
This is your Savior on the cross. He has mercy upon you for your sake, not because of anything you have done. He is perfect for you, even to death on the cross. And when your sin is before you, Jesus is there with mercy all the more. He says to you
I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And so, in forgiveness you live every day, counted perfect in God's eyes. Your sin is washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ. And so, you live toward the perfection that Jesus demands. Not as a way to fix your relationship with him, by doing a good deed that you must do to have eternal life. But instead as a reflection of the love shown to you. You strive to do what Jesus asks, go above and beyond the call of duty, in love, of your neighbor. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.