SJF • Epiphany 7a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
We continue our Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount and pick up on a theme that is woven through the whole of the text up to this point. We began by speaking about meekness as a humble acknowledgment of exactly where one stands, and not being afraid to stand there. This led to seeing Jesus calling each of us to be what we are — truly to live up to all God has gifted us with. Then last week we saw Jesus sharpen and refine the Law of Moses, getting at the Spirit behind the letter of the law, and calling us to faithfulness, honesty, fidelity and truth.
This week the gospel continues to challenge us, not just to be who we are, or to be all that we can be, but to be even better than that. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now that is a challenge if ever there was one. Most of has have a hard enough time being fair to middling, let alone being good — and we know in our better moments (or perhaps even our best moments) that we are very far from being perfect!
I mentioned in an earlier sermon in this series how people will sometimes say, “Be a man,” to someone who is not acting as he ought to — particularly when showing fear or cowardice. And today’s reading reminds me of another phrase you are likely to hear addressed to people, man or woman, young or old, who are not acting as they should. It is a phrase that expresses both disappointment and hope. And that phrase is, “You are better than that.”
I noted what was odd about that first phrase; that you can say “Be a man!” to one who to all intents and purposes is a man. And what is odd about, “You are better than that” is that since the ones to whom it is being said are acting badly, just what evidence is there that he or she is better than that. Maybe they are just as bad as they are acting at that moment!
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And yet we know we are called to be better than we often act. This is part of the challenge of life lived as a disciple — which means to be a student, to be one who learns, one who follows a teacher. If people didn’t need to learn anything, who would study? If we thought we were already perfect, who would go on trying to improve him or herself. As Jesus would also say, it is the sick who are in need of a physician! We come to our senses, so to speak, when we become aware of our imperfections — whether we are made aware of them by our own conscience speaking inwardly, or the voice of a friend or mentor or teacher speaking outwardly, facing us with that truly honest assessment, “You are better than that.”
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In his sermon on the mount, Jesus provided a measuring rod by which we could see where we might stand on that ladder of perfection. It is the law quoted from the book of Leviticus, from which we heard the original setting and context in the first reading from the Old Testament today. It is, by the way, the only Law that Jesus quoted from that most technical law-book of the Torah, perhaps because it does form such a useful summary: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Most of the laws in this section of Leviticus deal with rules that were already “on the books” — or at least on the tablets, the ones handed down at Mount Sinai: you know the ones: not to steal or to swear falsely or to profane God’s name. Some of the laws edge over into what we would call fair business practice: not to commit fraud or to withhold a worker’s pay. Some of the laws deal with cruelty or mischief — as if anyone needed to be told not to mock the deaf or not to put stumbling blocks in the way of the blind! (Though given the state of the world I suppose such things do need to be spelled out sometimes.)
But in the midst of all of these familiar and logical rules is one that sticks out as going beyond just being fair, to being generous. That is the law that instructs people not to reap right up to the edges of their fields, but to leave some of their own crops unharvested — a portion of the grain and the grapes alike are to be left unharvested so that the poor can gather them. And it is important to note that this section of Moses’ law-book is framed with the words, “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy” at the beginning, and “I am the Lord your God” at the end. This section of Leviticus is sometimes called, “The Holiness Code.” In it, God calls his people to be holy, to be as holy as he is. Is there an echo of that in Jesus’ teaching, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”?
For what else does it mean to go beyond the minimum of loving your neighbor as yourself? Just as Jesus sharpened the scope of the other laws, Jesus says we need to go beyond kindness just for our neighbors, our friends and family; but show it to our enemies and our persecutors. Just as the owners of field or vineyard are not to strip their fields and vines for their own use and their own families’ use, but to leave them, to leave what is left for the strangers, the wayfarers, the poor; so too we are called to go beyond doing good to those who do us good, but even to bless and pray for those who do us harm. As Jesus says, if you greet only your siblings, you are only doing what comes natural, nothing worthy of praise.
Jesus calls us to be like God in his generous perfection: God who sends rain on good and on bad, whose sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous. Jesus calls his followers literally to “go the extra mile” and “turn the other cheek” — and in case you ever wondered where those expressions came from, here they are! We are called to be better than that.
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It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say that there are two kinds of people in the world, and everybody else. Among those who don’t divide the world into two kinds of people, there was once a wise old rabbi who divided the world into four kinds of people. The saying is so old that it isn’t even recorded which of the wise old rabbis said it, but this is what he said (in my own somewhat updated version!):
Of the four kinds of people, there are the ones who say, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” — this is a selfish person; such a one, if he saw his house and your house were both on fire, would put out the fire at his house but leave yours to burn!
Then there are the ones who say, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” — and that is either meshuggeh or no better than children swapping their sandwiches at lunch.
Then there are the ones who say, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine” — and that is a villain.
But then there are those who say, “What is yours is yours and what is mine is yours” — and these are the saints. (Pirke Avot 5:10)
As we are reminded from time to time, we are called to be saints; and in our Gospel today Jesus urges us to this perfection, the doing of good not only to those who favor us, of doing good not only for our friends and family, but even for those who hold us in contempt; to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.
When I was a child, an annual ritual included standing in a doorway and having my height marked in pencil on the woodwork of the door-frame. I would always try to stand as tall as I could, to somehow get that pencil mark up a little higher. I think in the long run I failed in that; but I do seek — and I hope you do too — always seek to be better than I am.
What are the marks on your doorways? What are the grapes or grain you could leave untouched for others to be nourished by? Perhaps it’s the left-behind wheat and grapes that go to make the bread and wine that become God’s Body and Blood.
What extra miles have you trodden, or coats or cloaks provided — and has your cheek ever felt the sting of an unearned slap, and yet you’ve not returned it with a blow or protest?
These are the questions, brothers and sisters, that point us on the road to perfection, the road we are called to follow as disciples, challenged by our Lord to be better than we are, and to seek the perfection of God’s heavenly kingdom; where Father, Son and Holy Spirit live and reign, One God, now and forever.+