Friday, 18 February 2011

Third Sunday before Lent: Being perfect or just growing up.

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Matthew 5:38-end
‘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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 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.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s a good job Jesus doesn’t demand too much of us really isn’t it. I mean, how can we possibly manage this? Isn’t the whole point of the gospel that Jesus came to bring us forgiveness by his death and resurrection because God knows we can’t be perfect? This doesn’t make sense, and there’s a good reason for that, because this is another one of those places where our translations are not quite adequate.

On this occasion, though, it’s not their fault. The difficulty is that in every language there are many words that don’t have a complete equivalent in the language that you are translating into, and so it is with the word that St. Matthew uses here. Perfection, for us in theological terms, means something that is completely sinless, totally without blemish, but that may not be what Jesus meant.

For example, when I was a young lad I remember the first time Dad bought a new car. He only ever did it twice, but that first one sticks in my mind because I can remember standing at the window waiting for Dad to arrive home with his brand new white Opel Record estate. I can’t have been much more than five years old, but I was so excited, and I can still clearly remember him driving up the drive.

And of course we all had to have a look at this new car that no one had ever sat in or driven. The excitement of sitting on the clean new vinyl seats, which were a perfect excuse not to wear shorts in the summer. It even smelt new. Just perfect. For us perfect means shiny, bright, completely unblemished. But was that what Jesus was saying? Did he mean, ‘Be unblemished just as your heavenly Father is?’

I think not, because that is probably not what the word used here, telios, means. It has far more connotations of being complete, of being at maturity, of becoming all that you can become. In fact my old Volvo is far closer to that kind of perfection than my Dad’s shiny Opel was, because my old Volvo has seen a lot of life.

It has racked up a huge amount of character in its 140,000 miles. It has towed caravans, gone to weddings, baptisms and funerals. It's been full of drums/PA/guitars/harps and dragged us all over the place to gigs. It has been everything that a big old estate car should have been. It’s only shiny on the occasions it gets washed but it’s definitely not unblemished. It has life to it because it has become what it was made for, a workhorse to keep people safe in their journeys. My Volvo has more telios about it that Dad’s Opel Record had back in 1971.

So Jesus is not saying, ‘Don’t ever sin again’, because he knows that the likelihood of that is minimal. He is, instead, saying, ‘Become complete, fully mature and everything that you were meant to be.’ We might put it in more simplistic terms - ‘Grow up’!

And in the context of this passage, that makes more sense, because this whole section is about becoming complete, of being whole and mature, and I want to show you one specific way by which Jesus was trying to teach us that, and how, if we follow his teaching, we will be behaving like our heavenly Father.

So let’s cast our minds to the gospel reading. I want specifically to look at the final part, beginning from verse 44, where Jesus begins by saying that we should love our enemies.

Now I should point out that there are no teachings in the Bible that tell us we should hate our enemies. Jesus isn’t making this point to correct some part of the Old Testament law.

Instead he is looking at what comes naturally to us as humans, of hating people who hate us, and telling us that this kind of behaviour is immature; it is not the way to become complete because it is not being like our heavenly Father. The word used for love has its root in the word agape which is the Greek word for the kind of divine centred love that seeks the best for someone, regardless of feelings.

Agape is the kind of love that binds a married couple together when they express their commitment to each other in a way that transcends how they feel on any particular day. So what Jesus is telling us is that we should seek the good of those who are our enemies. But it seems so alien to us. Why would we want to love our enemies?

The answer is very simple. We love our enemies because that’s what God does. God refuses to make distinctions in how he treats people. Jesus uses a farming metaphor here to suggest that all farmers need sun and rain, so God sends sun and rain to all farmers, not just on the ones who love him, but also on the ones who hate him or ignore him, and this is the key point around which everything hinges:-

In administering love, God does not distinguish between those who love him and those who hate him, and therefore neither should we! When we act impartially, and when we actively seek the good of those who would seek evil for us, we are being like God, and in this context, if we begin tolearn to do that, we shall be on the journey to becoming mature, complete. But that’s not the way most of the world works is it.

In general people only treat well those who treat them well in return. It’s a case of, ‘You scratch my bike and I’ll scratch yours’, but that’s not how we’re supposed to be as Christians. Followers of Christ should be saying, ‘Regardless of how you treat me, I will look out for you and your needs.’ That’s what we find written all over the Leviticus reading, that the way of God is the way of loving all people and looking out for their needs.

This is one of the reasons why I have a deeply bad feeling about any organisation, particularly the more secretive ones, that looks out for the needs of its members, over and above other people, and this is something I have heard of too often in business circles. That is anti-Christian. Let the hearer/reader understand.

You see God doesn’t have favourites, and therefore neither should we. So think for a moment about how you treat people with whom you interact. If what we believe has any meaning whatsoever, it must affect how we live on a day to day basis. In what ways do we favour some people over others? In order to become more complete, we need to learn not to do this, but it’s difficult isn’t it!

But think about Jesus’s disciples. It is very likely that from early on Jesus knew that Judas would betray him. Yet at no time do we see Jesus treating him badly. In fact he went on trusting Judas with the money, even though the Gospel writer John indicates that Judas stole from it.

That’s the model for us, the maturity that Jesus showed. I wonder what we’d look like as a church if we tried to live like this, and I wonder what kind of business model we could provide if we worked like this. Amen

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