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I’m taking a preaching course this semester – I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking, but preaching is a distinct art, not just articulating a well reasoned argument on a subject, but discerning and illuminating what that subject might mean for our souls.
This course is hopefully one of my last academic courses for a while, but is just the beginning of my preaching studies – a life-long learning, I hope. And where better, and more daunting, to begin than with what was arguably Jesus’ greatest sermon, the sermon on the mount. So – preach a sermon, on the greatest sermon. No big deal.
I’ve been doing what they tell us students to do – but which I get the feeling most regular preachers rarely have the luxury to do these days – I’ve spent the past few weeks ruminating on these words. Letting them turn themselves over and over in my own soul, as I walk, as I read the news, as I play and pray and breathe.
There is a lot in here worthy of whole sermons – sermons that my political self hungers for. And then that line right at the end of this section, that I’d rather just lop off.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Or maybe we take out the gendered language, and instead read Be perfect, therefore, as your God in heaven is perfect.
But that hardly makes it easier for me. It’s the perfection I’m stumbling on. The paralyzing expectation of perfection. The self-righteous mantle of perfection.
For the last 5 years I’ve been part of running this ‘self care’ project for activists, counselors and community workers (creatively named ‘the self care project’). And perfection is the false idol we end up spending the most time deconstructing.
All these folks who sign up, mostly but not exclusively in their 20s and 30s, frustrated with themselves that they aren’t able to do more, struggling to justify taking a break, discouraged that they haven’t figured out their unique and perfect calling yet.
After everything else that is outlined in Jesus’ powerful sermon on the mount, this perfection bit seems incongruous.
So having mulled it over for weeks, I did what they teach us to do. I read many different translations, and then I dug into the original Greek. And it turns out, of course, that it is not, quite, as it sounds.
In his big sermon, the Greek word that Jesus uses, or at least the Greek word that the writer of the gospel of Matthew used, is telos [tel-os, tee-los], which can indeed be translated as ‘perfect’ – that not an inaccurate translation. But it is an imperfect translation.
Telos more typically denotes not moral perfection but something that has grown up, or matured. Telos is the goal or desired outcome of a thing. A fruit tree’s telos is to grow tall and sturdy so that it can bear fruit. (David Lose)
Along those lines, Be perfect as your God is perfect, is translated differently in Eugene Peterson’s ‘Message’ bible. After the beatitudes, talks of pacifism and Christian ethics, the concluding line of Peterson’s translation reads:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You are kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
It’s certainly different than perfection. But it’s a tad crass, particularly for me as a young minister, to preach at people to ‘grow up’.
I like where Peterson is going, but the interpretation of Telos that most rings true for me is that it is the fulfillment of a thing’s purpose.
In religious and secular settings alike, across generations, purpose is what I hear people yearning for most. A clarity of purpose. A purpose driven life.
So that’s the easy part of preaching – digging into the language of the text. The problem is that for most of us – we live our lives with only glimpses of what our particular life purpose is.
No matter our striving and our attentiveness, our purpose is rarely revealed in one miraculous moment. It becomes known to us a little at a time, through an unpredictable balance of effort and detachment from effort. We are being instructed to grow into the fullest version of ourselves, but it is in the growing that we learn, a little at a time, what that fullest version is.
And so at our best we live as if walking a labyrinth. Listening attentively, mindfully. Trusting that each curve is taking us the right way, that there is no wrong way. Sometimes I can feel like I am indeed living into that path.
But usually there are too many emails for it to feel possible. Too many meetings. Too many loved ones to tend to, birthdays to celebrate, causes to advocate for, bills to pay. And in the hectic whirlwind of life, we throw ourselves into things we have an inkling might be right. We strive to make good, if sometimes hurried, choices. Find ourselves many years down a road that we’re not sure how we arrive on, a semi-expert in a subject we don’t remember choosing.
The problem is that we yearn to live purpose-driven lives by first discovering our purpose AND THEN living into it. But it doesn’t happen that way.
Which, I suspect, Jesus knew. His sermon on the mount was being delivered to a growing crowd of his followers – seekers and disciples, poor and wealthy, Gentiles and Jews, who were asking similar questions to those we still ask. How should I live? To what should I devote my time, my energy? How do I know if I am doing this right?
And so he climbed a hillside, and he preached, or he taught. The longest continuous section of Jesus speaking found in the New Testament.
He began with the Beatitudes. A collection of blessings.
He used metaphors of salt and of light to lift up his disciples, to remind them of their value.
He then turned his attention to the law, calling his followers not just to honour the written law, but the spirit of God’s law.
So far it’s a pretty classical sermon.
And then he gets into the section that we have just heard.
He challenges the law of his time – an eye for an eye, or the principle of “negative reciprocation”, designed to set a limit on vendettas, and to ensure that the punishment doesn’t exceed the crime. He’s saying that ‘an eye for an eye’ may be a technically accurate interpretation of the law, but that it is not the law that God intended, it is not in the character of the God who gave the law.
He’s not, as many modern theologians are quick to point out, recommending becoming a doormat, nor is he suggesting a tolerance for violence. He is saying respond to violence with non-violence.
Respond with more love than was shown to you. Not to be better, in a way that makes it clear you are judging the other.
But respond with understanding, respond with the possibility of forgiveness, the possibility of redemption. Respond, always, with more love.
That is the central call, above and beyond the law. To love everyone – even your enemies.
AND it matters to point out that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he isn’t talking about love as a feeling. He isn’t asking us to try and feel affection for our enemies. In ancient times, “love” and “hate” weren’t understood in terms of internal emotional states.
He is talking about love as a verb. Recognizing that we are bonded to them, joining our fates to theirs, and seeking for their welfare and wellbeing.
Theologian and preaching professor David Lose writes that, “Loving your enemies is no way to get ahead in this world. For the rules of this kingdom are well known – it’s a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. But that’s just the point.” Jesus calls us to live as if another Kingdom is possible. To live already as citizens of that kingdom – the kin-dom of God.
As the scripture reads “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous as well as on the unrighteous.” So while the command is to respond by joining our fates to our enemy, the reminder is that our fates are already connected.
THIS is the context in which Jesus says to grow up, to be the person and community God created you to be.
The Protestant Reformationist leader Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. And it is recorded that at the Lord’s Supper St. Augustine would invite people to “receive who you are” and then “go become what you have received.”
And so the Christian call in Jesus’ greatest of sermons is this: to continue evolving, unfolding, growing. To always be striving not for a paralyzing ideal of perfection, or to be better than someone else… to always be striving for your tel-os, your fullness, your wholeness, and the wholeness of all that surrounds you.
Not taking an eye-for-an-eye, but turning the other cheek. Not just going one mile, but two. Responding with MORE love than you were shown. Not just for those who are easy to love, but even those who are not easy to love.
It’s not meant to be simple. But nor are we to turn away because we don’t think we can do it just right.