[Jesus said to the disciples:] 38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy (Leviticus 19.2). No big deal, right? You all got this figured out right? Okay. I’ll just sit down then. (Ha!) What a crazy place to end the reading. It’s a good thing that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t end there. Be perfect. Right, Jesus. We totally got that.
This is such an interesting phrase to use here. Be perfect. Other translations say “be complete in love” or “be all goodness”. The Greek word (teleios) gets at an idea of holy wisdom or maturity. Now, let’s say, hypothetically, that you could, by your own power, live up to this command if you knew what it meant to be complete or perfect or all goodness. That’s great, but Jesus here hasn’t just said something preposterous in and of itself. He’s said it after turning the world and its morals upside down. I mean, he has closed the loopholes of our own self-righteousness, he has told us that he stakes his place with the powerless, not the powerful in the world, and he has made it clear that the law remains intact despite the fact that he’s turned the conventional wisdom of the world on its head. A cursory reading of this passage this week makes it seem like holiness is powerlessness, is meekness, is essentially being a doormat.
What we miss in this reading, though, is the social context that makes this teaching about radical, non-violent justice. You see, just as we have our social norms which are often left unsaid, the original audience of Jesus did, too. When a person would strike a slave, they would do it backhanded which would be a blow to the right cheek; by offering the other cheek, though, you’d be asserting your equality, because by doing so you would be inviting them to make eye contact with you and strike you in the way you would strike an equal or superior. A Roman soldier could conscript service from anyone (think of Simon of Cyrene in Jesus’ crucifixion story), but there were laws in place to limit that abuse of power. One such law, as I’ve found, is that a soldier could make someone walk a mile carrying their pack, but if they went over more, they would be subject to discipline; by going two miles, you’d have the soldier asking you to stop so they wouldn’t get in trouble. And, finally, people tended to have two cloaks. If someone took one from you, and you gave the other one you had, you would be naked (yes, I said naked in church). In our day, this would be shameful for the naked person, but in their context, the shame would be upon the people who refused to clothe that person.
And then, of course, that lovely command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. As if all the other things we needed to do to be perfect or all goodness or complete in love weren’t hard enough already. Love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? In a world where we are hypervigilant against all kinds of potential threats, be they in the form of terrorism or corruption or poverty or media, we can find enemies all around if that’s what we’re looking for. Really, Jesus? Love them? Pray for them?
As shocking as it is to hear this, it really shouldn’t surprise us. It was Jesus who, on the cross, asked God to forgive the very people who put him there. It was Jesus who befriended Pharisees and tax collectors and prostitutes. It was Jesus who healed Romans and Jews, spoke with women and children, who told stories where Samaritans were the heros, and called upon the powerful to help the powerless. It was Jesus who flipped the tables of merchants taking advantage of poor pilgrims and it was Jesus who turned the tables of what we believe strength looks like.
If you want to test your strength, try doing this. Pray for those who persecute you. Love those that you perceive to be your enemy. Because by doing so, they cease to be your enemy. Love and prayer may not transform them, but it does transform you. It challenges your preconceptions and your experiences. Means possibly admitting that you are wrong and that maybe, just maybe, Jesus loves them as much as he loves you.
What Jesus is saying here isn’t just challenging your actions, but the actions of communities. And it isn’t just to make things difficult, even though it certainly can be. It isn’t just to show us how much we need grace, which we certainly do. But it is to show us what the kingdom of God looks like. It looks like people coming together under the umbrella of God’s love and grace. It looks like fighting hatred and fear with love, fighting darkness with light. It means recognizing the personhood of each and every person, regardless of if you agree with them. It means understanding that the image of God that I bear and you bear and every single person bears helps us understand the grace and love of God that much more. We don’t have a monopoly on the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is a kingdom that doesn’t focus on conquering and colonizing, but loving and serving.
Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer.” But that does not mean we stay silent or inactive. The kingdom of God, seen in the life, death, and resurrection of God, is for everyone. No walls can hold it back.
The work is difficult, there’s no way around it. We don’t do this sort of stuff naturally and it can make us despair, it can make us feel like failures, but it also brings a sense of awe. Because God has chosen you. God has named you a child. God is drawing us all in and is sending us out. Just like Jesus calling his disciples, “Come and see” and “follow me”, we are calling others, serving others, and working for the benefit of others. Because we understand that this unearned grace, this free gift of love, doesn’t just belong to us, but to God and God offering it to everyone.
God uses the Church to take on the cross, to model that sacrificial, life-giving love, and the Church is made up of people like you and me. You are loved, so go love. You are freed, so go work for freedom. You are marked with the cross of Christ to show it to the world. You receive the body and blood of Christ, so go be the body and blood of Christ. Amen.