Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2017
“Be Who You Are, Children of Your Heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:38-48)
The Holy Gospel for today can be a hard one to understand, much less a hard one to actually do. In it Jesus says things like “Turn the other cheek,” “Give somebody the shirt off your back,” and “Go the extra mile.” Oh, Jesus, really? Those things sound hard! Maybe you don’t really mean that. Is there a way we can explain those things away? But then Jesus goes further. He not only says we should love our neighbor–that can be hard enough–he even says we are to love our enemies. Yikes! Are you kidding me, Jesus? Surely this must be some kind of hyperbole or figure of speech. You don’t really mean this, do you?
What’s more, Jesus says that you are to love your enemies, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Is that what it takes to become God’s children, to love our enemies? If so, I think most of us will be in a heap of trouble and end up on the outside looking in. Again, is Jesus really being serious here?
Then Jesus wraps things up with this whopper of a statement: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Oh boy. Now I know I’m in trouble. “Be perfect”? I’m having trouble even reaching 90%. But be perfect? Ouch! What do I do with that?
Well, there’s a couple of things that people do with these teachings of Jesus. But I think they miss the mark, they miss the point of what Jesus is saying. I want to show how that happens. I also want to show how we can take Jesus seriously in what he says and still be OK. So that’s where we’re heading, under the theme, “Be Who You Are, Children of Your Heavenly Father.”
Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Jesus here is speaking to his disciples, that is, to those who have heard his call and are following him in faith. And these disciples, these Christians, will be facing a lot of opposition, a lot of persecution, in the days to come. As Jews living in a land under Roman occupation, they are open to being mistreated by soldiers of the Roman army. And Jesus here is saying: “Don’t resist them. In fact, show them extra love and kindness. And just generally, act in kind and generous ways. That will show your character as my disciples.”
Think of how Jesus himself did this. He showed kindness and acts of mercy to the poor and needy. He let himself be slapped around by the guards at the Sanhedrin and by the soldiers of Pilate. Jesus did not strike back. He let his garments be stripped off his back. He walked the Way of Sorrows, all the way to the cross. Jesus himself exemplified the kind of meekness and mercy he’s talking about here. And it is enough for disciples to be like their master.
Or consider his next statement: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did when he was crucified? He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And even right here in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds the dynamic of forgiveness right into the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus really expects his followers to live this way and to put this into practice.
Coming back then to the saying here in our text, Jesus continues: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” And this is one of the places where people can take the words of Jesus the wrong way. They hear the words, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” and they take it to mean, “so that you may become sons of your Father,” as though this were some kind of entrance requirement you have to meet first in order to work your way into God’s family.
But no, that’s not it. You cannot earn your way into God’s household. You need to be born into it. And being born is not something you do. God gives you the new birth as a gift. You were born of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. There you became God’s child. You didn’t do anything to earn it. God washed away your sins and placed his name upon you, claiming you as his own dear child. You were joined to Jesus, your Savior, whose death on the cross cleanses you from your sins and whose resurrection from the dead gives you new and eternal life. In Baptism, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, to keep you in the true faith and to guide you and empower you in your new life. This is how you and I became sons of our Father who is in heaven. It’s a gift, for Christ’s sake.
So what Jesus is saying here is not a hurdle you have to clear in order to get into God’s family. That, you could never do. No, what Jesus is saying is that because you are already God’s children, now show yourselves to be his children by how you live. By how you are kind and forgiving and loving, just like your heavenly Father. As the Father is, so will his children be.
Jesus continues: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For 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, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
In other words, even the people of this world are kind and loving toward the people they like, toward the people who love them. That’s nothing special. That comes kind of naturally. But where Christians show their distinctiveness–the salt-and-light difference that comes with being followers of Jesus, the loving character that shows we are children of the heavenly Father–is in how we treat people we would not normally love, if we were just on our own. God is working in you his own character, and that character is one of being loving and kind and merciful to all, even to those who do not reciprocate in love toward him. Jesus says by showing and reflecting the kind of love our Father has, we demonstrate that we are his children.
But now comes the hardest statement of all to swallow, and it’s a whopper: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Oh boy, now I’m sunk. I know I’m not perfect. And I don’t know anyone who is. I know some people who are pretty good overall, they’re fine Christians, but I know enough about human nature to know they’re not perfect. So surely Jesus must mean something else here, or else heaven will be a pretty empty place.
Well, so that’s the dilemma, how to take Jesus’ words here. One approach that some take is to say: “Well, of course we’re not perfect. That’s the point. Jesus is pulling the rug out from under us here, so that if we think we can be perfect and thus earn heaven, we will realize that we aren’t, and we’ll give up on ourselves and turn to Jesus, for he is our only perfection.”
Well, OK, that’s true, as far as it goes. Indeed, there’s no way you or I can ever achieve perfection in God’s sight. God’s Law will always accuse us and condemn us. We must look elsewhere for the righteousness and the perfection we need to enter heaven. And the only place to find that is in Christ. He is the only one who has kept the Law perfectly, and his righteousness is credited to your account purely as a gift. Hallelujah! Thank God, for this is the wonderful Good News by which we are saved!
All true. But if we stop there, the tendency can be to simply dismiss Jesus’ words about living a different kind of life as his disciples, a life of love and kindness and generosity and forgiveness. And to dismiss his teaching like that would be a mistake. No, Jesus really means and wants and expects his followers to live this kind of a life. Of course we will not do this perfectly. We still have the old Adam, our old sinful nature, hanging around our neck. We always will need Christ’s forgiveness to have any righteousness at all before God.
But at the same time, we Christians do not have only the old sinful nature. We also have a new nature in Christ. We have been given the Holy Spirit to help us live the new life. We are God’s children, and we do reflect his character. So Jesus really means what he says here. We are to be perfect, in the sense of becoming whole and mature and complete as God’s children. This is our Father’s will for our lives. Don’t dismiss this with a wave of the hand and say: “I know I’m not perfect. Only Jesus is. But God forgives me. Therefore God doesn’t really expect me to do these things and live this way. End of story.” No, that would be to take Jesus’ words here the wrong way. Jesus really means what he says. God wants and expects and enables his children to live a different kind of life.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Dr. Jeff Gibbs of our Concordia Seminary writes on this verse about being perfect: “Every disciple surely knows that he or she falls short of this calling and needs Christ’s forgiveness. Τhe Good News is that Jesus’ call for his disciples to be perfect should not be understood only as a demand of the Law. The disciples already are sons of the ‘perfect’ Father, who gives without regard to worthiness and who in Jesus Christ–indeed!–loves his own enemies. In light of this gracious Father’s love, Jesus’ disciples are free to seek the maturity of complete love to which Jesus here calls them.”
Again Gibbs writes: “Undeniably, a man who tries seriously to obey the will of God that Jesus reveals . . . will learn about his own sinfulness! In this . . . context, however, Jesus’ primary aim is not to condemn his disciples as the sinners that they surely are but rather to reveal to his disciples the will of God for their calling as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. . . . Jesus’ disciples will, both individually and corporately, begin to manifest the will of God for their lives. They know all the while that their quest for perfection has nothing to do with causing or maintaining their standing in the presence of God. Jesus the Lord is the one who manifests absolute perfection on behalf of his disciples, and his completed and mature work for them is at all times the certain hope and confidence of his disciples. In him, Jesus’ disciples also press on toward the completeness that he has revealed as the will of God among those who will, because they trust in this Christ, enter the reign of heaven on the Last Day.”
So, are you perfect in your keeping of God’s Law? Not hardly. And neither am I. Only Jesus is my perfection. But does Jesus really want me to take his words seriously and to live this way, even though it will involve a struggle with my old sinful nature? Oh yes. And God will strengthen you in the new nature you have as his beloved children to live in ways that reflect his character. Therefore, dear Christians, be who you are, children of your heavenly Father.