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. (Matthew 5.46-48)
In Love with Law; At Odds with Purpose
Today’s Gospel picks up where last Sunday’s left off—midway through the Sermon on the Mount’s most daunting segment. Although it’s less likely Jesus delivered the text in one setting, and more probable Matthew spliced numerous lessons together to solidify a platform for all that follows in his Gospel, the sermon’s organization is a feat of oratorical genius. Jesus begins with The Beatitudes, a high-level incentive plan that defines His core message and targets downtrodden and marginalized people who will constitute the backbone of His movement. He makes no promises about improving their situations. To the contrary, He says following Him will compound their troubles. Yet, from the start, He turns human logic on its head by promising their struggles won’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. What life takes will be returned: impoverished spirits will inherit spiritual wealth, bereft souls will find comfort, the lowly will be lifted, and so on. Then He confirms their invaluable worth by portraying them as salt that preserves the Earth and light that brings safety to the world. Once He seals His bond with His audience, Jesus turns to the Law that overwhelms them—directly, by disenfranchising them, and indirectly, by legitimizing sources of their distress.
Since He’s about to rattle some really big cages, Jesus prefaces His comments by insisting, “I’ve not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5.17) It’s hard to imagine His listeners understand what that means, as many of us, though aided by hindsight and the Epistles’ in-depth analysis, are no less challenged to figure it out. As Jesus steps through the Law, He intentionally focuses on extreme behaviors like murder, adultery, divorce, and pompous oaths—i.e., infractions beyond the pale of ordinary, Law-abiding people. What throws them, however, is His dissection of attitudes and presumptions that pave the way to unthinkable crimes: aggression and deceit that end in senseless death; lust that fuels infidelity; indifference that erodes unions; hubris that enables insincerity. Had Jesus merely recited laws, His followers could have checked them off without thought or reservation: I’m not a killer; I don’t sleep around; I’m wed for life; I honor my vows. As the list went on, their hearts would swell with greater pride and affection for the Law, because It verified how righteous and obedient they were. That’s precisely what Jesus opposes by stressing how easily we can be in love with the Law while still at odds with its purpose. “’Do not kill’ is meant to accomplish more than deter murder,” He says. “Its primary purpose is to thwart lesser evils that lead to murder. Failure to acknowledge and abide by the Law’s intentions is tantamount to breaking the Law.”
Much Closer to Home
Jesus uses the “big sins” to lay the groundwork for what comes next, because what comes next drives much closer to home. It’s here, in verses 38-48, that He proclaims four pillars of His gospel: tolerance, selflessness, equality, and unconditional love. He’s still discussing the Law, mind you, but He’s left the no-brainers to dig down into the hard stuff—edicts intended to shape our responses in virtually every situation we encounter. First, He breaks down “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth”—a three-time favorite from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Jesus explains the point behind the measure’s severity centers on defusing conflicts before resorting to useless extremes. The law’s apparent equity is transparently inequitable. Taking your eye after you’ve taken mine won’t restore my vision. Extracting your tooth after you yanked out mine won’t ease my pain. By intention, the rule is designed to show it’s fallacious to equate retribution with justice. By intention, it expects us to find a better alternative before retribution becomes a last resort. The answer, Jesus teaches, is tolerating adversaries by negating their abuse. “Don’t resist an evil person,” verse 39 says. “If anyone slaps your right cheek, turn the other one also.” He segues from tolerance to selflessness, instructing us to exceed undue demands. “If someone wants your shirt, give up your coat, too,” He says. “If you’re asked to walk a mile, go two. Give when asked, and don’t refuse any loan requests.” (v40-42) How does this satisfactorily resolve conflicts? It doesn’t. It preempts them.
Wow. If it feels like Jesus’s strategy for conflict resolution is over-the-top, what’s next boggles the mind. He cites a law found in Leviticus 19.18—“Love your neighbor”—that is widely misinterpreted to imply “hate your enemy.” He debunks this error by insisting distinctions between friends and enemies are non-existent. If we’re truly God’s children, He explains, then our attitudes must align with God’s, and God treats no one preferentially. He reminds us, “God’s sun rises on the evil and the good. God’s rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Everyone is equal. Thus, in God’s eyes, loving friends is loving enemies; loving enemies is loving friends. Establishing equality is this law’s purpose, Jesus explains, before expanding its implications by asking, “If loving people we already love is all we derive from it, what do we gain? Even tax collectors”—reviled as traitors and crooks—“do that. If we limit our compassion to like-minded family members, where’s the benefit? Even non-believers do that.” (v46-47) So what if we boast day and night about how godly we are? We’re in the same rut as the rest of the world. In other words, without unconditional love, nothing changes.
The Ultimate Statement
Jesus concludes His discussion about fulfilling the Law’s intentions by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as God is perfect.” (v48) It’s the ultimate statement, one that we should hear clearly and carefully. Otherwise, we’ll dismiss what He asks of us as ludicrously unachievable. It teeters on the ambiguity of its seemingly least important word—as. While striving for perfection is a mainstay of our Christian walk, it’s essential for us realize why we’re told to embrace so lofty an aspiration. “Be perfect like God is perfect” sets the standard. The thoughts and behaviors we find in God are the thoughts and behaviors we should emulate. God tolerates our insolence and abuse. We should do the same with others. God answers our undue demands by exceeding our expectations. So should we when asked. God’s mercy preempts conflicts to avoid unjust retribution. We extend mercy to achieve justice as well. God shows no preference among people. Nor should we. God loves without condition and expects no less from us. We’ll find perfection we seek in the Law—not by loving It, levying It, observing It, or obeying It, but by fulfilling Its purpose.
But there’s a second layer to “Be perfect” that replaces “like God is perfect” with “since—or because—God is perfect.” We are God’s reflection on Earth, the living, breathing embodiment of God’s presence. Perfection transcends aspiration to become spiritual responsibility. Resolving conflicts equitably isn’t enough. Gravitating toward friends and family who look like us, think like us, and behave like us falls short. Holding our ground, taking positions, building fences, and dismissing anyone who differs from us makes us no different than anyone else. Nothing changes. We weren’t created to look, think, and act like one another. We were made to look, think, and act like our Maker. When we learn loving the Law is futile if we’re at odds with Its purpose, we’ll fulfill the Law. Once we realize our differences are illusory, we’ll stop worrying about how things look and start seeing what God sees. That changes everything.
We fulfill the Law when we start seeing everyone is the same as us, and stop expecting them to look, think, and act the same us.