Perfect has no part measures

Epiphany 6 – 2014

Matthew 5:21-32

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves us and expects us to share that love with others. Amen.

There used to be a playground chant used as a response to teasing or insult. I’m sure that most of you know it: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” I imagine it was a jingle that was taught to children by people who wanted to build their resilience and I suspect that it worked at least to some extent. That is, it taught children not to let negative comments get under their skin, but to treat them as something superficial, to have such a solid understanding of their worth as a person that the taunts could run off their back. If the child in question felt that they had been heard, the advice would have assured them that someone was on their team, recognising that the attacks were not warranted and giving them a strategy for coping[1].

The problem with the statement, “words will never hurt me” is, that in a great many cases, it is not true. Words can do as much, if not more, damage than physical attack and they leave wounds that are not immediately obvious to others – and sometimes not even to the victim.

Children who are constantly demeaned by the adults in their lives or taunted by their friends, can develop a sense of self-loathing that is difficult to turn around. Women and men who are constantly put down by their partners begin to believe that they are in fact worthless. In many cases, broken bodies heal with the proper attention, but broken minds and hearts can go unattended, often with disastrous consequences.  Thanks to social media we cannot ignore the devastating effects of on-line harassment which tragically has led young people to take their own lives. I can’t even imagine what the consequences of the current practice of “shaming” young people will have on their future lives and development.

Jesus, without the benefit of modern psychology seems to know intuitively the power of words to hurt. You have heard it said: “You shall not kill, but I say to you whoever calls their brother or sister “fool” will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

In this rather long selection from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing the radical love that being his follower demands. In a series of anti-theses, “It was said – but I say,” Jesus takes the teaching of his day one step further. It is not sufficient, he suggests, to do the bare minimum. True love does not demean another person, real love is not limited to those who love us back, love that is real seeks reconciliation not conflict. Love is based on an authenticity that does not need to swear on anything, because it is always truthful.

When we think of the Sermon on the Mount, we tend to think only in terms of the beatitudes. However, the way in which Matthew has arranged his material extends the sermon from what we know as the beginning of chapter 5 to chapter 7:28. Within this section, verses 5:21-48 consist of a series of six anti-theses of which three are included in today’s gospel reading. These six anti-theses are divided into two groups of three 21-32 and 33-48. What links these six together – apart from their common structure – is the commandment to love which is implied throughout and stated explicitly in verse 43. In verse 48, Jesus’ hearers are exhorted to “be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect.” This conclusion makes clear that Jesus is demanding his followers to go above and beyond duty and law and to try to emulate the perfect love of God.

Throughout this section of the sermon, Jesus uses the formula: “you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times” – or an abbreviated form of the formula. It is difficult to say with certainty to which authority Jesus is referring. As there few are exact quotes Jesus could be referring to the Old Testament, to the oral tradition of the Jewish people or to the teaching of the Pharisees. One commentator, Luz, argues that on the basis of the content and the language of the sayings that the content refers to the Jewish scriptures. This, Luz argues, is consistent with Matthew’s overall view that Jesus fulfills or completes the scriptures. That does not mean that Jesus contradicts or rejects the Old Testament scriptures but rather that he expands and breathes new life into precepts that were always true. In other words Jesus rewrites what he has inherited in such a way as to bring to fulfillment or completion their true purpose.

Jesus begins with what is the only explicit quote from the Old Testament: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” He then goes on to list five antitheses to this statement. In other words, Jesus takes one of the commandments (slightly expanded) and demonstrates how different it looks with love at the centre – or when a lack of love is replaced with love.

Jesus follows the commandment with three negative examples of unloving behaviour, examples of not keeping the commandment. He points out that anger and name-calling are not expressions of love. They can be just as damaging and hurtful as physical violence. He continues with two positive examples of being loving (keeping the commandment) – making peace with a fellow believer who is angry at you and coming to an agreement with someone who is taking you to court. Jesus is insinuating that while not loving is as bad as murder, loving leads to reconciliation. In other words, nothing less than unconditional love and respect fulfills the sixth commandment.

In these anti-theses, Jesus takes the law to its ultimate goal. By making clear the intention of the commandment, he introduces a radical law that is free of compromise. One is either loving or one is not.

It is relatively easy to keep the letter of the law: do not kill. It is much harder to live in such a way that no one is ever hurt by a thoughtless word or a deliberate barb. Until we are perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect (5:48), we must accept that our behaviour falls far short of the law, that the standard set by Jesus is one that we may never reach and that we must never judge another or consider ourselves better than another.

Perfect has no part measures.

[1] A quick look at my Facebook account tonight had two posts that I was tempted to use as examples – one on the top twenty things to say and another about breastfeeding. The latter posted on upworthy reminded me of a great response to bullying by a American broadcaster who received a nasty emai about her weight.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: