Today I am preaching on Matthew 5:17-48. It ends with Jesus commanding us to be perfect. He clarifies that by comparing what we should be like to Father God. ‘Be perfect’, he says, ‘as your heavenly Father is perfect’.
Now on the one hand (if we take the perfect ‘telios’ language out) that sounds a bit like, ‘one day you’ll be just like your Dad’. On the other hand our heavenly Dad is perfect and that makes it a very steep hill to climb to be like him.
So many people read/preach this passage like it is Romans 1-3. Essentially this is a scaled up version of the law designed to arrest our hearts into realising that we are not perfect and thus causing us to repent and fling ourselves on God’s mercy and grace. Nothing wrong in realising that. Nothing wrong in flinging ourselves on grace!
Yet it seems to fly in direct opposition to the tenor of the talk. Jesus could have really rubbed it in our faces if he wanted to: He could have concluded Matthew 5 the way Romans 3 does: ‘so there’s no-one perfect, not one at all’. Instead he finishes with a rally cry to Kingdom living that makes us look like our Dad in heaven.
What is it that Jesus wanted out of this talk?
On the one hand it certainly convicts: who can stand under the teaching on lust, hate, giving, loving, forgiveness, worrying, money, praying, judging and not realise that they have not met the Kingdom grade in any way shape or form? With two of these Jesus even warns that hell is on our way if we cannot change our ways.
On the other hand with each individual detail he describes you can almost imagine doing just what he says! You can get a taste for who you might be and what life might look like if you could just do the thing he describes… if only your pesky heart/emotions/temper/habits wouldn’t get in the way.
But is he saying try harder? Try even harder than the religious zealots who think they keep the Old Testament law ok?
Or is there another clue in the sermon as to how we are to live out this passage?
The beatitudes tell us:
Blessed is the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness [to live the right and just way before God]. They will be filled. Filled with what?
5:13-16 tells us that we are the light and salt in the world. How do we get to be light?
6:4, 6, 18 says that the Father rewards what we do in secret [talking about giving, prayer and fasting]. If we seek first the Kingdom all the things that we worry about will be given to us.
If we ask, we are given, – what should we ask for?
If we seek we find – what should we seek?
If we knock the door will be opened… – what are we knocking for?
If a flawed human parent will invariably try and give good gifts, who much more will God the Father give us gifts – what is the one gift he loves to pour out more than any other?
Perhaps the key to this dichotomy of hope and conviction comes in Mt 6:19-24. Here Jesus spells out how our attitudes to money, wealth and possessions can and will fundamentally define us. If we store up treasures for ourselves here, if we focus our heart’s desires here and now, if our eyes lust after what we can have here and now, if we serve wealth, possessions and property right now, the light that is bright within us dims little by little until we get so unhealthy and dark inside that we have no light in us at all. Eventually we are devoted to this life and despise all of the Kingdom of God.
But if we seek first his righteousness, we can be filled – what with? With his spirit! [cf Luke 11:13]. We are told to be the light of the world not assumed to be doomed to be the darkness of the world. When we seek we find, when we pray we receive, when we forgive we are forgiven, when we walk on the narrow way that leads to life we get there it. When the Kingdom life infuses us through the action of the Holy Spirit living the Kingdom way becomes more and more plausible. To be sure first the words convicted us, and then again and again and again, as we realise increasingly how far short of the standards we always are, but it doesn’t back us into a corner of hopelessness. Rather it compels us to first fling ourselves on the mercy of God as seen in the cross and then secondly to cry out, plead for and work towards Spirit-powered change. We plead with the lord of change and for victory. Sometimes possessions and love of this world overwhelm us. Sometimes the light in us burns ever so dim. But always we know that the life Jesus describes for us is the life an unencumbered Spirit within us would cause us to life out.
we find and are filled and we are transformed.
The sermon on the mount isn’t there to tell us how awful and bad we are. This is Jesus telling us all we could be.