Perfection – The Sermon on the Mount

In Matthew 5:38-48, which is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we find ourselves again talking about perfection.  This text culminates in Jesus’ statement, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  For how can we approach our perfect heavenly Father if we ourselves are not perfect?  How can we stand in the presence of the Holy Lord if we ourselves are not holy?  Yet, when we look at ourselves in the light of God’s Law, we realize that we do not measure up to this required perfection, nor can we achieve it.  So, instead, we cling to the Gospel, the good news that it is the perfection of Jesus Christ which saves us.  We trust in him only to be saved from eternal death.  He is the one who reconciles us with our Holy Lord.

For God’s Law is a demanding Word that we cannot perfectly fulfill.  As the Lord says in Leviticus 19, we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  All the prevarication of the scribes and Pharisees around this point centered on the definition of neighbor.  They were perfectly happy to treat their family and friends well.  But, as is revealed in the reading from Leviticus and in the Gospels, your neighbor is everyone, even those who are different from you, and even those you don’t particularly like or enjoy being around.  We are to treat all people well, because we are all God’s creation.  God is the one who has the right to inflict punishment and enforce order.

So, in Jesus’ sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, he is reminding his hearers, including us, what God had told them about how to treat other people.  Again we see the contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God.  “You have heard that it was said” introduces the clouded wisdom of the world.  This wisdom seeks personal vengeance and looks out only for one’s own.  This wisdom tries to narrow God’s command to make it achievable by us.  But, Jesus speaks the full wisdom of God when he says, “But I say to you…”  He refutes the fallen wisdom of the world with the perfect wisdom of God.  He is reminding us of our obligations as God’s creatures.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek when someone slaps us, so that they may have the other cheek to slap as well.  Our natural inclination when someone wrongs us is to retaliate against them.  When someone cuts us off in traffic, we want to honk, flash our lights, and then speed in front of them and slam on our brakes – we want to get even.  But, Jesus says to let the wrongdoing go.

And in that light, Jesus also says to allow the one who sues us for our tunic to have our cloak as well.    The tunic was the basic garment of the time, and the cloak was what the poorer people used to keep them warm at night.  Yet, here Jesus is saying to submit willingly to the injustice of another person.

Jesus also tells his hearers that if someone forces them to go one mile, they should go with them an extra mile.  Roman law allowed their soldiers to impress civilians into service to force them to carry their load for up to a mile.  So, Jesus is saying that if someone forces you to carry their load for a mile, to go ahead and willingly carry it for two miles.  Perfection involves bearing with the injustice of another person.

I know that at many times in my own life I have not borne injustice willingly or loved my neighbor as myself.  And I’m sure you all have had many similar experiences, because try as we might we just can’t be perfect.  And all of these injunctions of our Lord go against our inclinations; they go against our fallen wisdom.  We are willing to love our friends and neighbors, yes, but not our enemies.  And we can’t even love our friends and neighbors with the perfect love that God requires.  Our love for our own does not even surpass that of abject godless sinners, for everyone loves their friends and family.

But God’s Law commands that we be perfect, just as He is perfect.  For He shows His love for his creation by caring for it and providing for it, even those within it who are his enemies, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  Indeed, God bears with the injustice of people; He bears with us sinners.

For these injunctions, “Do not resist the one who is evil” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” are what God Himself did for us through Christ.

Have you ever thought about that?

Due to the sin of Adam and Eve, we were the enemies of God and the evil ones.  We were in bondage to sin and therefore God’s enemies, so totally turned away from Him that we could not reconcile ourselves to him through our own power.

But, God came down to us in the flesh, Jesus Christ, and gave himself up into the hands of his enemies for us.  Christ allowed himself to be taken into custody, tried, and crucified for us.  He did not resist the one who is evil.  He turned the other cheek to be slapped, he allowed his tunic and clothes to be taken by the Roman soldiers, and he was forced to carry his cross on which he would be nailed, and he did so willingly, laying down his life for us; he bore his burden the extra mile.  Indeed, even in his death, he cried out from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  Jesus did all these things that he says in his sermon, he is perfect, and he did this for us.

St. Paul talks about this in his letter to the church in Rome.  He writes:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11).

Jesus Christ died for you while you were yet sinners.  You didn’t become his friend and do good things to make him love you.  No, you were his enemies, bound in sin.  But, God doesn’t act according to the wisdom of the world.  He loves the unlovable, He loves his enemies, and in Christ He even died for them, for you.  So now He has reconciled you to Himself through Christ and you are no longer enemies of God, but rather the children of God.  You have God’s perfect promise that through Christ your sins and imperfections are forgiven and you are now God’s family.  We can’t make ourselves perfect, but Christ is perfect for us, and he died for our imperfection.  He died and rose to make us His people.

There’s one other thing to talk about here as well.

As we’ve gone through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount the last few weeks, you may be wondering something.  What about government?  What role does the government play in all this?  Should the government forgive and bear with injustice?  I think it’s important to say a few words about this.

First, civil government derives from the Fourth Commandment to honor your mother and father.  All civil authority, and it’s God-given commission to keep and maintain order in the world, ultimately derives from the authority of parents.  Indeed, we are told in the Scriptures to obey civil authority, because it has been instituted by God Himself for the benefit of His creation.  The people in civil government may at times be evil and therefore not fulfilling their calling, yet the institution itself is God-given.

Lutherans call civil government and civil authority God’s “Left Hand Realm.”  In this realm, God’s Law prevails and God-ordained civil authorities are called to rule according to law.  In this realm, evil is to be restrained and punished, not borne with.  God gives His Left Hand Realm the power of the sword to keep and maintain order.

Then, we call the Church God’s “Right Hand Realm.”  This is the Church universal, founded on Jesus Christ, where the Good News of God’s grace through Christ is proclaimed.  It’s what we confess we believe in in the Creed: one holy, apostolic, catholic Church.  In the Church we proclaim to people that their sins are freely forgiven for the sake of Christ, even as we receive this proclamation ourselves.  We bear with one another’s burdens, just as Christ bears with ours.  In the Right Hand Realm we are called to live as God’s people, “little Christ’s” in the world, bearing with injustice and forgiving sins.

The point, then, is that Jesus is not talking to civil government in his Sermon on the Mount.  He is talking to His people; he’s talking to us.  He’s talking to those called to faith in Him and brought under the saving reign of God.  He’s talking to the Church.

So, in the Right Hand Realm of the Church, arms have no place, for the weapons of the Church are God’s Word and Sacraments.  The Church expands through the preaching of the Law to bring sinners to repentance and the proclamation of the Gospel to bring them to faith in Christ for their salvation.  The Church bears with sin and evil in the world and loves its enemies in the hopes that they too will be reconciled to God through Christ.  The Church is in the business of the forgiveness of sins.

The Left Hand Realm of civil authority, however, is not armed with the Word and Sacraments.  Instead, God gives civil authority the power of the sword with which to punish and restrain evil doers.  The Left Hand Realm is to maintain outward order and pursue enemies of peace and promote justice.

The Left Hand realm is necessary due to the fall of this world into sin and decay after Adam and Eve’s rebellion.  The Right Hand realm is necessary for this same reason as well, because the Church points people to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, reconciliation to God and each other, and eternal life.

So, how do we reconcile the two realms?  We don’t, really.  For both realms are ruled by God Himself,  and both have their proper place: the Left keeping outward order, and the Right proclaiming God’s grace through faith in Christ.

And we as Christians are citizens of both realms.  We are American citizens, subject to our nation’s laws.  If we get pulled over for speeding, we can not appeal to God’s forgiveness through Christ.  Rather, we are guilty and must pay the penalty.  A lot of us are also parents, so we must discipline our children to help raise them on the right path; we must also protect them and our families from harm and all evil.  Even the church as an institution, such as the LCMS, is a Left Hand Realm institution, organizing itself according to rules and regulations.  We also have the military and police to enforce order and punish the lawless on our behalf.  All this is done to maintain order in the world.  And all this is done on God’s behalf, for He instituted civil authority for the benefit of His creation, as “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

As Christians, though, we are also citizens of the Right Hand Realm of God’s Church.  We are His holy people, His children redeemed by the body and blood of Christ.  And as Christians we are to display the unmerited forgiveness that God has shown us to others as well.  We are to be “little Christs,” bearing the burdens of our fellow man, just as Christ bore ours.  We are not to seek vengeance in our personal dealings with other people, but trust that the Lord will have vengeance, here and now in the Left Hand Realm through those” authorities whom He has tasked with executing justice, and in the day to come when Christ will return with his final, ultimate, everlasting judgement.  And sometimes, we may have to remind the Left Hand realm of its proper role and place in the world.

Ultimately, when Christ returns there will no longer be this distinction between the Left Hand and Right Hand realms, for all things will then be restored to the perfection in which God originally created everything.  Then, the duty owed to God by both realms will be complete.

And on that day when Christ returns, we will be raised up from our graves and stand before the holy Lord.  And like Isaiah before us when he encountered the infinite holiness of the Lord, we will feel our sins and imperfections and say to ourselves, “Woe is me!  For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5).  But, before we can find time to speak a word, Christ will say, “Father, I have redeemed them from their sins and reconciled them to you.  Though they were once your mortal enemies, I have made peace between them and you through my crucified body and blood.  So, now they are perfect, even as you are perfect, because I have given them my perfection which I won for them on the cross.”

And then you will enter into the Lord’s presence and dwell with Him for eternity.  And you will no longer struggle with sin, and you will no longer have to bear burdens on the earth, but will receive the full joy and rest which Christ bestows upon you in the new heaven and the new earth where there is just one realm, because all things will be made perfect.  Amen.


(Image: A mural from the catacomb of Commodilla in Rome, late 4th century.  Public Domain,