Sunday, February 20, 2011
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 20, 2011)
“Just Like Your Father” (Matthew 5:38-48)
“You are just like your father.” That could be good. It could be bad. It all depends on what kind of a father you have … or had, if he doesn’t happen to be with us here any longer.
“You have your father’s eyes … his ears … his nose.” That’s great … until someone says those dreaded words: “You have a face only a mother could love.”
“You have your father’s personality.” Wonderful … unless your father happens to be self-centered, obnoxious, and abusive.
Hopefully, when people say to you, “You are just like your father,” they are noticing the more positive traits that they saw in your dad. His work ethic. His patience. His dedication to your mother and your family as you were growing up. Things like that.
If your father was an exemplary man, and your teenage years were less than stellar, perhaps you had someone say this to you: “Why can’t you be more like your father?” Being like your dad might be a lot to live up to.
Once again, I guess it all depends on who your father is. Jesus once said that the Jewish leaders who opposed him had the devil as their father. When they claimed to have God as their father, Jesus responded, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). This was shocking. They thought they were doing God’s will. The Pharisees among them, in particular, were seen to be the most pious in the community … the good “church-going folks.” But Jesus says that they are sons of Satan. Why? They had no love for Jesus as the Son sent from the Father. They had no faith in Jesus as the promised Savior. They did not have the kind of faith that simply receives the gifts that God gives. For them, it was all about keeping the commandments in order to be pleasing to God. And yet Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20) They were good, alright … outwardly, anyways. But the righteousness that Jesus requires is a completely different kind of righteousness. It’s a righteousness not based on the Law, but given by grace. And in that sense, it certainly is a kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s the righteousness of Christ.
At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Wow. Talk about a lot to live up to. His words echo what we heard from Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” These words sound harsh. Threatening. Condemning. We know that we are far from perfect. We know that, in and of ourselves, we are quite unholy. When we acknowledge the evil in our own hearts, we may wonder whether perhaps we, too, are sons of the devil and not of God.
The maxim “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was meant to place a reasonable limit on justice. Whether eyes were really plucked out or teeth removed among the people of Israel as sentences for crime is beside the point. The point here is that, in our relationships with each other, we should never seek to get revenge. Our first inclination when we are victimized, however, is not to turn the other cheek but to lash out. Later, when our anger subsides, we follow the rule “Don’t get mad. Get even.” If you end up taking someone to court, you think to yourself, “I’m going to sue him for all he’s got.” On the other hand, if someone sues you for your shirt, you would never think of giving him your coat. Yet that’s what Jesus says to do.
We hesitate to be generous with our time and energy and resources. When someone asks for help, we may do so, but begrudgingly. “I’ll give you a ride to Seattle, but don’t ask me to take you to Tacoma.” We think to ourselves, “Man, I’m not sure I can afford to give someone a handout. And how do I know they’ll pay me back if we call it a ‘loan’?” By the way, Jesus isn’t necessarily telling us to indiscriminately help everyone we see on the streets. In his explanation of this verse, Luther wrote, “Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help, and then to suffer want myself and become a burden to others. He is not saying that we should give and lend to everybody, but ‘to him who begs from us,’ that is, to the one who really needs it.” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 21:117)
And I think we can all fairly say that loving our enemies is next to impossible. We look with contempt upon those who persecute Christians. Jesus tells us to love them. Do you love those who would gladly slaughter you simply because you confess faith in the Triune God? Do you pray for them? Then again, I doubt if any you personally know anyone who would make you a martyr. Your enemies are much closer. Maybe your enemy is an atheist acquaintance who verbally assaults you and the Church. Maybe your enemy is a family member with whom you are estranged. Maybe your enemy is across the aisle from you. Can you honestly say that you love that person and pray for them when there is so much antagonism between the two of you? Jesus says you should.
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” … “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Actually, these words of our Lord are not as condemning as they might seem at first. Instead, Jesus is continuing his discussion here in his Sermon on the Mount about life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is describing the life that Christ’s followers will live as salt and light in the world.
The word for “perfect” can be translated various ways. When we think of “perfect” in this context, we probably think of being without sin. And our Heavenly Father is indeed without sin. But the word here can also mean complete, whole, the end result, mature. Likewise, “holy” doesn’t only mean sinless, but it can also mean “set apart.”
After having paid the price for our sins with his blood on the cross, when Jesus was just about ready to breathe his last breath, he said, “It is finished.” The word he used is a form of the word “perfect.” Think of it that way for a moment: “It is perfect.” Works, huh? And it was perfect. Complete. Whole. The end result of God’s plan for history culminating in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. The Holy Son of God was set apart from eternity to be the Savior of the world … to be your Savior.
Jesus went above and beyond the reasonable limits in order to show his love for us and satisfy God’s justice over our sin. The Old Testament demanded and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Jesus gave his life in exchange – not just for one life – but for the life of the world (Matt. 20:28). His accusers slapped him on the cheek during his trial, yet Jesus was silent and did not resist them. He gave up his cloak, and the soldiers gambled for it. Jesus went the extra mile for you, walking all the way up the hill of Golgotha, carrying the burden of your sins and mine upon his shoulders. In his Incarnation, Jesus surrendered his rights as God for the benefit of all people. In his Resurrection and Ascension, the perfect life that Jesus lived is now lived in and through his followers who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them and empowering them.
In your Baptism, you were set apart as God’s chosen vessel. You were forgiven. Your unholiness was washed away. The Holy Spirit now dwells within you. Now, in Christ, you are perfect, complete, whole, and holy ... set apart to be a blessing to others, to be salt and light in the world. The perfect life of Jesus is reflected in you when you do not seek retaliation, when you love your enemies, when you pray for those who persecute you, when you are impartial to all people in your acts of mercy. The perfect life of Jesus is reflected in you when you love all people from the heart. That doesn’t mean you have to go out and pal around with them. It doesn’t require that you sit down with them and socialize over a beer or two. It does mean that in spite of how you might feel about them, you deliberately act on their behalf, doing loving actions for their benefit, treating them the same whether they are friend or foe. Like Jesus, it means surrendering your rights for the benefit of your neighbor. It may also mean suffering for your neighbor. And in this way, you will be “just like your Father.” You will show yourself to be sons of your Father in heaven, because of the Father’s Son who surrendered up his life for you.