NOBODY’S PERFECT, RIGHT?
Matthew 5: 38-48
A sixth grade boy walks into his classroom on a Wednesday morning. With chagrin he realizes that the week is just half over. “Jeremy,” his teacher asked, “Do you have your homework assignment to turn in? Well, Jeremy’s heart starts pumping faster so that it feels like a kettle drum is in his chest. His palms start to perspire and his hands stick to the surface of his desk. What would he say? The truth was he just plain forgot it, but the truth wasn’t easy to admit. “I didn’t bring it today,” was his feeble response. “Did you do your homework, Jeremy?” his teacher asked. “No,” he said, “I forgot.” “I see, Jeremy” said his teacher. Just then Jeremy remembered something he had heard others say. He blurted out, “Well nobody’s perfect, right?” Nobody’s perfect; such a disclaimer might work when someone does not do addition as well as another, or a person cannot ride a bike without falling. But could a father say it who missed his daughter’s birthday? Could a defendant say that to his defense attorney as a way to defend his actions of brutally beating his child? Can a nation say that when a military miscalculation creates what some call collateral damage? There are few times when the “nobody’s perfect” defense works. Yet people come back to it time and again. Some believe that since Jesus said it, we need to be perfect. Some children, unlike Jeremy, can actually torment themselves trying to be perfect. Such a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words can bring anguish to a young boy or girl. Young woman often fall prey to the supposedly glamorous images of weight, and creating the desire to be perfect in their minds can lead to unnecessary and dangerous eating disorders or plastic surgeries. So it is clear that few people would use, “Nobody’s perfect, right?” And yet how often do people plead their case before God using that kind of defense, or hope that God will grade on a curve? There is excellence for which we ought to strive in life, and there are standards of living that Christians are to follow. Some of them, addressed by Jesus in today’s text, include our actions against those who do things against us. What should we do in place of retaliation? How shall we love our neighbors and our enemies? Today we are reminded that plenty of people in our world believed, and still believe, that taking out the person’s eye who blinds you is doing justice. It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Long before Gandhi, Jesus indicated the same thing. Can you imagine the courtroom of barbaric actions? “Your honor, this woman is guilty of scratching out the eyes of another woman. What is your judgment of a just punishment?” What if the judge replied “Scratch out both of this woman’s eyes.” Now two people would be blind; two would depend on others for navigation and two would have their ability to gain employment severely curtailed. But it is frightening to think how many times we think that way; that justice is done by having the same mutilation performed on the attacker. What if God had acted that way when Jesus was crucified? Would God have slain Pilate or the Chief Priest? Would God have chosen even a disciple, like Peter, to slay for not trying to stop the killing? But God—who never claimed fairness as the highest level of action, but instead chose justice, everlasting mercy, forgiveness, and love—God made a higher choice. That’s what being perfect begins to look like.
An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; in a fleeting moment we call that justice. We say it isn’t fair that someone who has done a wrong thing to someone else does not have the same wrong thing done back to him or her. But there is a strange discovery when one turns to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. It’s a book that lists every single world in the Bible. And guess what? The word “fair” is not listed! “Fair” or “fairness” are not listed in the Bible! Instead there are examples of justice, mercy, and love. Those are the ways of God. Those are the ways of Christ. And those are, in Jesus’ sermon, the ways of people trying to keep God’s ways “perfectly.” You may recall how many of Jesus’ stories involve people believing a decision is not fair: there is the older brother in the field who believed his father’s gifts to his prodigal brother were not fair. There were the full day workers who complained that the landowner paid them the same amount as he paid the “Johnny come lately.” Examples of complained fairness turn into stories of great mercy and grace when preached by Christ. It is the transforming power of God; it is the point of Jesus’ sermon for today. Doing what is right is not the same thing as doing what is perceived as fair.
The original Greek in which the New Testament was written uses a word for perfect that is different from the first definition that may come to our minds. “Perfect” meant something or someone that fully grows into the purpose which was planned. One person put it this way: “’Be perfect’ is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us—fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.” [Barbara J. Essex] From the lips of Jesus part of our purpose is to love God and to love our neighbor. From the Westminster Larger Catechism we learn that our chief and highest end (or purpose) is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever. These are coming close to lives that are perfectly lived. And God has a divine purpose: to love us in spite of our failings. Only once did God try barbaric justice with the worldly do-over recorded in Genesis 6. But God set his bow of war—the rainbow—in the clouds in Genesis 9 as a reminder to God, and a teachable moment to others, that retaliation is not redemptive, it is destructive. God wants us to also do redemptive work. As it has been said, “The sun rises on the good and the evil; the rain falls on the just and unjust. So why do we, God’s children, differentiate?” Does rain only fall on the fields of the righteous and not on the unrighteous? Of course not, and that bothers us most of all.
The first of the 10 Commandments give us these words from the mouth of God: “You shall have no other gods before me.” To love God is to not go looking for godly love in all the wrong places. And to merely intend to be faithful misses the mark.
Jesus said “Go ye into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” To hit the bulls-eye, which is love, we have to live the gospel and tell it. We cannot just intent to do it.
Our text tells us today “You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” But now you know what that means. Our Heavenly Father shows perfect love, perfect, grace, perfect forgiveness, and perfect justice. It is to those ends that human beings are to continue to strive.
To only intend to do those things makes us fall short of the Great Commandment as the Lord Jesus delivered it: “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians are only real Christians when they get off of their “good intentions” and do what Jesus would do.” Let’s “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” Our world needs the transformational message that Jesus preached and that we are commissioned to carry out.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 20, 2011