The extra mile toward Perfection

The following is a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Emmett, ID on Sunday, February 23, 2014:

The Scripture texts are Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48

Have you ever become so caught up in a story that as you read it, the story became a movie in your head?  The words engage your brain to add visuals of the characters, dialect or accents to the printed words, and images of places, persons or things as you are caught up in every page.  That’s what makes for a good book.  Every author knows it and strives to captivate their audience in this way.    

Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite classic novels and is one of those stories in which the words on the page come to life.  The novel’s Southern setting and characters have personalities that I can understand.  Yet one character, Atticus Finch, stands out in this story of a community’s awakening conscience during an era of racial and economic hardship. 

Atticus Finch is an attorney and the father of the narrator Scout and her brother Jem.  He is a widower and a man whose wisdom is matched by his compassion for justice for others.  As the story takes shape, Atticus and his children become change agents to their community and reader alike; challenging the community’s status quo during a period of inequality and injustice for this was a time of discrimination and profiling and hatred on many levels.   

The two scripture passages we read today complement one another in commending and commanding that those who love God should be concerned with the welfare of others as much as they are concerned about their relationship to God.  The ideal is that it is through our demonstrated care for others that we come into relationship with God. 

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird the Old Testament book of Leviticus does not conjure the mental images of a movie or the dialect of any character that I want to encounter.   Page after page… through all 27 chapters… we hear law after law, rule after rule, code after code, some of which are communal but most of which are detailed and personal.  These rules are called the Holiness Code by scholars stemming from the repeated phrase, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The verses we read today from Leviticus stress the type of relationship the Hebrew people were to have with one another.  Today we read that those who farm should not collect the entire harvest but should leave a portion for the poor and the alien; that their dealings with others should be honest and truthful; that employers should not withhold wages from their employees (and by implication pay them an honest wage); that in matters of justice decisions should be made without partiality; and that bearing a grudge or taking revenge is not allowed. 

This passage includes that moral command which Jesus will quote as part of the greatest of the commandments – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

But then Jesus comes along and, in the portion of Matthew’s gospel we read today muddies up this whole notion of “love your neighbor as you love yourself” with a new interpretation.  For those of us who have a Bible labeled a ‘red letter edition’, this and the next two chapters contains the longest unbroken chain of red letters in all of scripture.  Matthew reports the Sermon on the Mount in these chapters and seemingly does so early in his reporting of Jesus’ ministry.  There’s no doubt (at least for me) that Matthew shares this sermon early in his gospel so that his readers will have no confusion about who Jesus is.  Reading the Beatitudes and hearing Jesus speak about salt and light and now hearing Jesus speak about the law helps the reader to create this mind’s eye image of Jesus and quite possibly to imagine the kinds of people, some whose voices we get to hear but most who remain invisible to the page, to whom Jesus is addressing.

 No doubt, much legal interpretation by experts throughout the generations had come to see that “loving your neighbor as yourself” called for an equality of treatment in all things bad and good.  Love was easily replaced with the word ‘treat’ or as the maxim goes “do” unto others as you’d expect them to do you.  At its extreme it becomes “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” brand of justice.    

 Certain, as we the reader might be of the movie like images or character traits in this story Jesus will now re-cast the stereotypes or the long held notions of “loving neighbor” in our mind.  The admonition, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; if someone wants to take your coat, offer your cloak too” goes much farther than the maxim of “love neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus challenges the very notion of the status quo when it comes to our dealings with others, Love your neighbor…but also love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  I doubt that Jesus means our prayers should be a petition for harm or injury to our enemy.

Finally, Jesus makes this seemingly outlandish commendation to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Perfection is a pretty tall order.   We create high standards of perfection for others while setting sometimes pretty low standards of perfection for ourselves. We may coo and dote… at the newborn baby and some may even compliment the parents at “how perfect” their baby looks.  Yet each of us knows that if that baby follows the natural path of all of us, perfection will include countless dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and at times less than perfect behavior. 

When Jesus commends us to be perfect, he’s aware that none of us can live a perfect life that is free from sin, or dirty diapers and behavior that is exemplary.  In fact what he is doing is challenging us to become what was intended from the very beginning – when God saw creation and said, “this is good.”  Jesus invites his followers to accomplish our God given purpose just as God and what we can know about God reflects God’s nature and purpose.

Being perfect is an invitation to live more than ‘tit for tat’ or promoting equality, it is an invitation to go the extra mile in each and every relationship we have – in our relationships with those we love: with our neighbors, and with those who we consider our enemy and who may consider us their enemy.  Being perfect, as Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to join in the vision of the Kingdom of God and a summons to action for those who desire to live in it.

Be perfect does not offer us an excuse to give up- to throw up our hands and quit.  I think this quote I read is a great one: “Jesus knows that we have more to give and that we can be more and do more than we’ve settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we simply believe in ourselves.”  Perfection is never achieved, but is something to strive for each and every day of our life.  It will be painful and demanding of us.  It will put us at odds with the standards and practices that prevail in our society. 

Yet to go the extra mile with and for another will bring us one mile closer to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.    

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