Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: On becoming perfect

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July 16, 2012 by jmar198013

[5.43-48: On perfection through love of enemies] “You’ve been told to love those who are like you and hate those who are not. Well, here’s what I have to say about that: love your enemies and pray for those who are giving you hell on earth. That’s how you’ll prove that you really are your heavenly Father’s children, because he makes his sun rise on the sinners as well as the saints, and his rain makes the crops grow for the good people of the land and the greedy crooks who exploit them. Do you think you deserve a prize for loving people who love you? Even your average loan shark or mercenary or war profiteer does that much. Or do you think it’s a sign of superior moral virtue to extend hospitality only to your own kind? That’s exactly what the Ku Klux Klan, Middle Eastern terrorists, and members of street gangs are already doing. So you be all-inclusive with your love and hospitality, just like your heavenly Father.”

In Matt. 5.1-12, Jesus forms a community around himself and welcomes and honors them. In Matt. 5.13-16, Jesus gives this community a vocation and a task: they are to be salt and light, a city on a hill; their good deeds are done for God’s honor. Jesus then moves on to explain that this community-in-formation stands in continuity with the Torah and prophets (5.17-20). From there, Jesus goes on to interpret the Torah for this community-in-formation (5.21-48). Jesus’ call to perfection through loving enemies (5.43-48) is the conclusion of his interpretation of Torah.

Many have come to this passage and exclaimed, “I cannot do this! I cannot be perfect!” Some have decided, “Well, no one’s perfect, nor can they ever be, but maybe Jesus means that we must strive for perfection, although we know we can never attain it.” Either of these options frustrates both the meaning of the text and the earnest intentions of would-be disciples.

The first thing to note is that Jesus never said you, as an individual, must be perfect. He intentionally switches into the plural voice when he issues the order of perfection. This word is a word for the church to perform in concert.

Second, when Jesus says that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, he does not mean moral perfection. This concept of perfection is imported from cultures foreign to the context in which and for which he spoke these words. Jesus is not calling us to be flawless or faultless. The word perfect here means “whole” or “complete.” In this context, as we shall see, it is probably best to understand it as “all-inclusive” or “encompassing.”

Third, to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect does not mean “to the same degree.” It means “in the same way as.” The perfection of the church, then, is meant to mirror a particular sort of perfection native to our heavenly Father.

Fourth, we do not get to decide what “perfection” means. Jesus has already named it for us. It means that we love our enemies and neighbors alike, and that we extend hospitality not only to our own kind, but to enemies and strangers as well. That is why I suggest that we understand “perfect,” in this context, to mean “encompassing” or “inclusive.” What Jesus is calling us to is a love that encompasses those who are like us and those who are not; those who are friendly to us, and those who are hostile to us. When the church does that, we have fulfilled the command to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. This is the problem with supposing that perfection, in Jesus’ estimation, means fundamental moral goodness. If we take it to mean that, it is all too easy to substitute abiding by a set of mores, many never directly addressed by Jesus, for the harder task of loving our enemies. This is why it is important to admit that we do not get to decide what perfection means. If we were capable of deciding this on our own, we wouldn’t need a Sermon on the Mount.

Furthermore, the church does not get to decide what loving our enemies and showing hospitality to outsiders looks like. To the extent that Jesus roots his call for the church’s perfection in God’s character, in God’s inclusive love, we need to be told how God loves. Fortunately, Jesus was also gracious enough to do that. He points out that God sends his blessings of sun and rain on all people, so that those who love him, those who are hostile to him, and those who don’t even know him, are all blessed. Loving our enemies supposes interaction with them. It means that we find tangible, material ways to be of benefit. I am reminded of the story of the ancient Christian martyr Polycarp, who not only did not resist when Roman officers came to arrest him, but insisted on feeding them first.

There is a deep measure of grace in the Sermon on the Mount. One way in which this may be seen is that Jesus did not jump right out of the gate telling us to be perfect and love our enemies. Rather, he begins by instructing us how to be reconciled to our brothers; how to be faithful to our marriage covenants and our partners; how to tell the truth to one another. He begins by teaching us how to love those who are in our immediate sphere of concern well. These practices of reconciliation, faithfulness, and truthfulness are habits that form us into the sort of people who are capable of loving our enemies.

The love of enemies described by Jesus has the Cross as its template. Jesus reveals God’s fundamental stance toward his enemies when he dies at their hands rather than destroying them. Loving our enemies in the fashion of Jesus and Polycarp models God’s character, his encompassing love. The world is to see this, and honor God, because they experience God through our inclusive love and hospitality.

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2 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: On becoming perfect

  1. […] It seems to me that loving an undesirable stranger as the fellow in Marva Dawn’s story did is one sort of test for love without flinching. But in Romans 12, Paul is more addressing how we Christians relate to one another in the church. I do not know that most of us would be able to muster the willingness Chi Ping displayed to let ourselves be used as vessels of the Spirit’s love toward scary-looking strangers if we do not first learn to love our fellow Christians, in their (and our) various forms of brokenness, without flinching. One of the blessings I have received from my studies in the Sermon on the Mount was figuring out that we Christians learn to love our enemies by loving each other well: […]

  2. […] Romans 12.14-21 is how much it depends on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matt. 5.38-42 and 5.43-48. Paul’s word, “Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions … […]

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