Text: Matthew 5:38-48
This morning’s Gospel passage concludes with what sounds like an impossible command. Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I don’t know about you, but I know about me. I am far from perfect – and if perfection is the goal, I’m in big trouble!
I have good news. While there is no doubt that what Jesus asks of us is difficult, it’s not impossible. What Jesus is asking us to do in this passage is to love as God loves. This this morning, I’ll walk us through what’s happening in this passage and then, we’ll explore together what loving as God loves looks like in our own lives.
To begin, we have a translation problem. The word that our Bible translators give to us as perfect is the Greek word telios. And while perfect is one way to translate this word, it’s not the best or the only way. Telios can mean complete, mature, and having full integrity, as well as perfect.
There’s a version of the Bible called The Common English Bible. It translates this last phrase this way: Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete. Each and every example that Jesus gives in this short passage, from going the extra mile to lending to those in need, to praying for and loving one’s enemies all stem from that command to love as God loves.
We have been invited, in our own relationship with God, to experience God’s love first hand. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, God’s love and grace is extended to us. Through Jesus’ life, ministry, example, death and resurrection, we have been offered life-giving grace and forgiveness. We have been offered God’s unconditional love. In this passage, Jesus asks us to take that unconditional love and grace that we have been offered and to extend it to others. That’s how we love the way that God loves. That’s what it means to be perfect, to be complete, to be mature, and to have full integrity.
One of my favorite passages from scripture comes from the First Letter of John. In the 4th chapter, we read: Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8, CEB)
I don’t know about you, but I was raised to think of my life of faith as a win or lose proposition with no middle ground. It was either success or failure. Either I got it right, or I failed colossally. I eventually realized that God doesn’t operate this way. God is love. And God extends love to us again and again. As I walk through my own life, I am given many many opportunities to learn the lessons of love – and to extend love to others. If I get it right – good. If I fail, I have an opportunity to return to God’s love for me, receive God’s grace, and then try again.
Living and loving this way isn’t easy. The scenes that Jesus describes at the beginning ask us to receive being humiliated with non-violent opposition. Then he asks us to show compassion by giving and lending when we are asked. He concludes with asking us to pray for our enemies and to show them love. This is tough stuff. In my own life, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. But, then I get up, return to God’s love and grace, and try again. And again. And again.
What might this look like? Here’s an example.
Perhaps you remember the story of the school shooting in the Nickel Mines Amish Community in Lancaster County, PA in October of 2006. A man named Charles Carl Roberts IV shot ten Amish school girls, before killing himself. Five of the girls died and five were critically wounded but survived. The Amish made the news almost immediately because of their incredible acts of forgiveness. An Amish neighbor named Henry visited Charlie’s parents on the day of the shooting to offer forgiveness. Thirty Amish community members attended the funeral for Charlie Roberts, shielding his family from the news media.
One article I read about this event said that “not holding grudges” is a core belief for the Amish in living out their faith. Many outsiders were quick to judge the Amish for rushing to forgiveness too quickly. The father of one of the girls opened a window into what this experience of forgiveness is like. His daughter Roseanna was not killed, but permanently disabled. She cannot walk, speak, or communicate. He said that every day as he watches her struggle, he has to fight back his anger. Every day, he says, he has to forgive again. Several people described this decision to forgive as an active choice.
Another part of this story that you may not know is the story of Charlie’s mother, Terri. After she was shown forgiveness and care by her Amish neighbors, she began to reach out. She has developed a special relationship with Roseanna and her family. Until a recent illness forced her to slow down, she went to Roseanna’s house once a week to bathe her, spend the evening with her, and give her family some respite from her ongoing care.
What I hear in this story is a whole group of people who chose to love as God loves. It would have been easy for those Amish families to shut out their neighbors. It would have been easy for Terri Roberts to turn away from the pain her son caused. Instead, in that small community, neighbors reached across a huge chasm of pain to love one another as God loves.
Our world is growing ever more polarized. We disagree about so many things. We’ve lost our capacity for civil discourse. It’s so much easier to be snarky and dismissive than to engage in the actual work of love. We live in an age when we hang out in echo chambers that reflect our own views. Social media makes it easier to unfriend someone than to engage with love across our differences.
Jesus calls us to love as God loves. To resist violence with non-violence. To care for those in need. To forgive our enemies and to pray for them. We are to do it because God is love and God loves us. Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete.
This morning, our Scripture readings speak to us in one common voice. And that common voice tells us that God’s values are different from many of our default human values. Let me say that again. The common voice in our scriptures this morning tells us that God’s values are different from our default human values.
Think about it. Our society tells us that the most important thing we can do as humans is to have power. To have wealth. To have prestige. To be successful. To be great again. Listen to the news. Watch a commercial. See a movie. It’s everywhere we look. But, our readings from both Micah and Matthew remind us that those human values are NOT God’s values.
Speaking through Micah, God says to the people – I freed you from slavery. I brought you out of Egypt. I don’t want empty worship. I don’t care about the bulls and the rams and the oil in your offerings. I want you. And I want you doing for others what I have done for you. I want you DO Justice. I want you to LOVE kindness. I want you to WALK humbly with me.
What does that mean? It means that God wants how we live our lives to reflect who God is and God’s love for the world. And we do that through our DOING of Justice, our LOVING of Kindness, and our WALKING in Humility.
The words are tricky. We receive them in English, but because Micah 6:8 is translated from Hebrew, we miss the nuance. Let me try to explain.
Justice is an English translation of the Hebrew word mishpat. To us justice is a legal term, but that’s not its primary scriptural definition. Justice is something we DO to be certain that all the people of the earth have what they need for their well-being. Caring for our brothers and sisters is a scriptural imperative. It’s not optional. Exodus 22 explains it this way: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan…. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
The word translated as kindness is the Hebrew word chesed. It has no direct English translation. It’s related to love, loyalty, and faithfulness. Frankly, kindness isn’t nearly a strong enough word to convey the meaning of chesed. Chesed describes the key element in human relationships – whether that relationship is one of marriage, friendship, or community. It’s also meant to characterize our relationship with God. So, we are to LOVE loyalty, love, and faithfulness in all of our relationships – and to act out of that love. We don’t do it because we are manipulated or afraid, we do it because God loves the world – and we are part of the world that God loves.
And, we are to WALK with God. Our walk should be humble or circumspect (both good translations of the Hebrew), to put God first and live in conformity with God’s desires.
And, if we’re wondering about what God’s desires might look like, we can turn to the Beatitudes for some ideas. Jesus spoke the beatitudes to a crowd gathered around him on a mountain top. We know the whole speech as the Sermon on the Mount. They were Jewish people, living in an occupied country, experiencing daily oppression from their Roman occupiers.
Jesus had good news for those people – and it continues to be good news for us.
Because Jesus tells us who and what God values. Once again, we see that the world is turned upside down: Who’s blessed? Jesus says these folks are blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel.
Since August, it’s been my privilege to worship with you, work alongside of you, and partner with you for the sake of the Gospel. I’ve heard painful stories of how the racism that infects our country has impacted your lives in the past and continues to do so today. And, I’ve watched you hungering and thirsting for justice. I’ve watched you being peacemakers. And, I’ve heard amazing stories of what DOING justice, LOVING faithfulness in relationships, and WALKING humbly with God looks like in real life in our community.