Excellence will be tolerated

Matthew 5:38-48

Someone hits you. You don’t hit them back. In fact, you let them hit you again. Someone steals your shirt. You offer them your jacket. Someone forces you to do something truly onerous. You do twice what they require.

You guys have heard this all before… over and over. And you’ve probably heard a lot of preachers’ interpretations of what Jesus might have meant when he said these things. One of the most popular interpretations seems to revolve around the hidden subtext of: “Don’t get mad, get even!” It’s a secret… shhhhh! What Jesus was really saying was that, since respectable folk would only use their right hand to hit someone (you reserved your left hand for “cleaning yourself,” and for other dirty tasks like taking your shoes on and off), that meant that if someone hit you on your right cheek with their right hand, it would have to have been a backhanded slap… an insult, inflicted upon an inferior. So, by offering the aggressor your left cheek, you were forcing them to treat you as an equal… by hitting you full on with their fist. Ha! Pretty clever, huh? Or that by giving someone your outer garment, after they already taken what you wore under it, they would then be responsible for your being naked in public. Boy! wouldn’t they be embarrassed? Or that when someone demanded of you something they had no right to ask for, you could shame them by giving them even more than what they required. Yeah, baby! Whose got the moral high ground now?

Compelling respect, causing embarrassment, using shame as leverage—sounds pretty… petty, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little passive-aggressive. But I’m pretty sure Jesus was neither petty nor passive aggressive. It seems to me that some of these explanations are predicated upon how people think… not how God thinks. In any case, it’s hard for me to reconcile any interpretation of Jesus’ words involving coercion, embarrassment or shame with what he said next, which was, in essence: Help folks when you can… any way that you can. Love your neighbors—all of them—even the ones you don’t like… and who don’t like you… because, like it or not, they too are children of God.

So, here’s my question for y’all today: What if Jesus meant exactly what he said in the first few verses of today’s passage from Matthew? No subtext… no subterfuge…. What if Jesus is simply offering a way—the Way—to better live our lives in accordance with God’s will?  We might call it: “Salvation for Dummies!”

“Well, maybe it’s that simple,” you say. “But it sure is hard work!” And it is. How difficult it is for us to take it on the chin… and not fight back. To put aside our pride… and to keep on giving, even when it hurts… to go the extra mile for someone who doesn’t even seem to notice or care. That’s a tough one, isn’t it? “What are we anyway,” you ask… “Saints?”  Well, we’re meant to be. That is why we’re here, isn’t it: to learn how to become better… more like our Father in heaven. And Jesus came to show us how we could do that… to set us an example of what it means to be fully, perfectly human. As a priest colleague of mine once observed, “The essence of salvation is not simply that one escapes hell… and squeaks into heaven for an eternity of bliss rather than torment… but that one becomes more and more like God. What it means to be a Christian is to yearn… with all one’s being… to become like God.”[1] You remember the old spiritual: “Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart?” That’s what it means to strive for perfection as a child of God.

The root of the biblical word used by Matthew translated as “perfect” in today’s Gospel is תָּמִים (tāmîm), which means “wholeness.” To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in our devotion to the one God… who is Lord of all. Viewed in a broader context, this is the kind of living to which Jesus called his disciples throughout the entire Gospel narrative. Someone, somewhere once said that, “anyone or anything is perfect when it fully realizes the purpose for which it was created.” So, for us, “being perfect means doing what we were meant to do, which is love God and our neighbors and our enemies [wholly], with all our hearts.”[2] This perfection may not be attainable during our earthly sojourn, but we have to try. I once saw a coffee mug with a logo in large print reading: “Perfection is our goal!” And then, below, in smaller print, “… but excellence will be tolerated.” We have to do our best to be faithful to God’s call… but our God is gracious, and a lover of souls, and he will not test us beyond our ability to endure.

None of what Jesus is telling us to do in today’s Gospel lesson is a matter of human stratagem. We are not to turn the other cheek to compel respect. We are not to offer our coats as a ploy to embarrass. Going the extra mile is not intended to help us achieve moral superiority, whatever that might look like. We humans are pretty good at being petty and passive aggressive, but that’s us… it’s not God! I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t thinking sullenly, “This’ll show ‘em!” as he gasped out his last, dying breaths on the cross. No. Instead, as Jesus offered up his life for the sins of the whole world, he forgave his tormenters and consoled the fearful as he made use of one, last, grievous opportunity to show us the way to the Father: “I love you this much. Maybe now you’ll understand. It is finished!”

God is calling us to be better than we think we can be. Therein lies the path to salvation. There will be times when we’re tempted to apply a veneer of human interpretation to Jesus’ teachings, just to make them more understandable… and perhaps more attainable. And I’m not saying that we ought not seek out, and pay attention to, the linguistic and historical context within which our Canon of Scripture was written. We should and we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to better our understanding of God’s Word. But, in the final analysis, we should refrain from overcomplicating Jesus’ message of radical, unrelenting love. If God is love (1 John 4:8) then Jesus is love incarnate. And whenever we wonder what it is that Jesus is trying to get through the thick skulls his disciples’ (and our own!), we should ask ourselves this question: “What does any of this have to do with love?” Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34). It’s hard! As my grandmother Mino used to say of marriage, “It’s a dear and difficult business.” But it’s what we were made to do. Not feel… do. Loving like Jesus is something that we do. Jesus makes love an action verb. So go forth into the world today, and every day, in the name of Christ. Redouble your efforts to be the Body of Christ here on earth… made more fully-human in the image of Jesus of Nazareth, made more perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. We won’t achieve that level of perfection in this life, but we’d best be working at it. 

And relax… excellence, and yes, even a real, heartfelt attempt to be excellent, will be tolerated.

[1] Edwards, O.C. “7 Epiphany, Year A,” Tuesday Morning, 19, no. 1 (2017): 18-19.

[2] Ibid.

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