You Shall Be Perfect: A Command or a Promise?
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for today is Matthew 5:48: [Jesus said]: “Therefore, you shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Notice the subtle change? The ESV translation we just heard for our Gospel has “Therefore, you must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I just said, “Therefore, you shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” So which is it? Must or shall? Either is grammatically correct. The Greek verb may carry with it two senses: an imperative or a description of a future condition. It could either be a command or a promise. Or, to express it in terms we Lutherans are more inclined to speak: Law or Gospel.
The first way of translating it is Law. You must be perfect. You must be as perfectly righteous and holy as your Father in heaven is perfectly righteous and holy. God doesn’t grade on a curve. His standard is perfection. Don’t settle for less if you want to be called His child. You must reflect who your Father is. Do you call God “Father?” Do you dare to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven?” Then measure yourself against your heavenly Father. Be perfect, as He is perfect!
Jesus started out this section of the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” That was bad enough. But you have to be better than the best. You must be perfect!
The last couple of weeks, we’ve heard Jesus goes through the commandments and the scribal interpretations of the Law. Taking it much farther than any of those righteous teachers, probing to the deepest, darkest recesses of sinful human hearts. You’ve heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you, “Don’t even call your brother a nasty name.” You’ve heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t even look at a woman with lustful intent.” You’ve heard it said, “Do not swear falsely,” but I say to you, “Don’t make an oath at all, but let your word stand for itself. And cut off anything from your life that leads you to sin.”
And if that was not enough, Jesus piles it on: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
There is a grudging sort of spirit that afflicts mankind by nature—at least, fallen mankind. Keeping score: tit for tat; even-steven, that’s the thing. Do unto others before they do it to you. Don’t get mad—get even! Do what you have to in order to stay ahead, and if someone does get ahead, be sure to get even. Never, ever let anyone take advantage of you.
In place of grudging compensation and quick revenge, Jesus calls His disciples to lives of reckless generosity and naiveté. His teaching is hyperbolic—but that does not mean He is not serious. His words are to reform our basic instincts, our quick reactions, our unwillingness to sacrifice. St. Paul hits very close to this same target with his admonition to not repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:18-21).
No pound of flesh. No resistance. No rationalizing or looking for loopholes. A willingness to give up one’s rights, to even allow others to take advantage of you. If you want to take the Law of God seriously, this is where the Law of God will take you. It’s God’s way. It is the way of our perfect heavenly Father. But it is not the way that comes naturally to us fallen sinners.
And if such demands of the Law were not already impossible for you and me, Jesus raises the standard even higher. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Jesus urgently commands His disciples to “love” without reference to the worthiness of the person being loved and to “pray” for others in the same way. Even the enemy and the persecutor must receive the loving deeds and prayers of Jesus’ disciples. The purpose of loving and praying in this way is to give the evidence that Jesus’ disciples are, in fact, the sons of the heavenly Father, who is known only in Jesus (Matthew 11:27).
Why will love even for the enemy reveal that Jesus’ disciples are the Father’s adopted sons? Because the Father is good to both evil and good, to the just and the unjust. This is so in the realm of creation, where God does not withhold His good gifts from those who have set themselves against Him in unbelief and rebellion. It is preeminently so in Jesus Himself, who will give His life as the ransom payment, not in the place of the few, but of the many.
Jesus’ words have hit home and stung throughout the centuries, and they would have been strikingly powerful in the first-century context of patronage, where relationships of status over against other members of the community were of paramount importance. The Lord’s teaching also has special force in a society like ours that is concerned with possessions and busy-ness, and in which families are falling apart at an alarming rate under the pressures of poverty and divorce. In our day, it seems almost newsworthy if someone succeeds even in the most basic task of loving those who love him or her. But in response to that kind of conditional support, Jesus asks rhetorically, “What reward do you have?” The tax collectors, among the most-despised member of society, often succeed in doing such things. Even the Gentiles, the unbelievers are nice to their own kind.
And so, Jesus concludes: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “You must be perfect?” or “You shall be perfect?” Perfect as in complete, whole, all that you are and all that God has made you to be. “Must be” as an imperative command, or “shall be” as a description of future condition? Which is it? “You must be perfect” or “You shall be perfect? Is it Law or Gospel? Is it your doing or Jesus’ doing?
If it’s Law, it’s all up to you to do. And then you’re left without eyes and hands and still haven’t addressed the real problem—your sinful heart. And try as you might, you can’t fix your own heart. As we heard last week, you need a new heart, a clean heart. A heart of flesh instead of that sinful heart of stone. No, your problem is not what you do; your problem is who you are—a poor, miserable sinner who justly deserves God’s eternal wrath and temporal punishment.
But if this is Gospel, everything changes. If this is Gospel Jesus is promising that you will be perfect, complete, whole, entire, as your Father in heaven is perfect, not because of something you have done, but because of everything that Jesus has done for you and in your place: His perfect life for you, His becoming sin for you, His atoning death on the cross for your sin, His resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand for you, and by the outpouring of His Spirit upon you in Holy Baptism. If this is what Jesus means, then it is the sweetest Gospel your ears could possibly hear!
Yes, there is Law. This text, like so much of the Sermon on the Mount, is full of Law—scathing Law, accusing Law that condemns you by exposing your sin. Yet as Jesus lays down the Law in this passage, the words He uses keep pointing you to the Gospel, the Good News of salvation. Dear friends, there is hope and life for you. Not in rights or works, but in grace and mercy. Not in you, but in Christ. For Christ has fulfilled the Law for you in your place, and in doing so has won your salvation. And that changes everything!
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” A Law that was meant to ensure that the punishment doesn’t exceed the crime. But there is Christ in the Praetorium, beaten and scourged. Does He deserve to be punished so severely? Absolutely not! He is the sinless Son of God! Does He have the right to be treated better? Absolutely! He’s the King! He deserves all glory, honor, and worship. But Jesus is not there to enforce His rights. He is there, acting in love for you.
Jesus is slapped on the cheek, struck hard. His enemies mock Him for claiming to be the King and the Christ! Justice would have Him speak a Word of righteous anger and kill His enemies on the spot. But like a Lamb led to the slaughter Jesus opens not His mouth. He turns the other cheek instead, because He is going to bear the burden of your sin to the cross. He is living and suffering and dying according to His great love for you—that you might be redeemed.
Jesus is not compelled to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile. He’s forced to carry His own cross as far as He can manage. For you. They take His tunic. How obscene. They cast lots to see who takes it home even when He’s right there, bleeding and dying on the cross. What is the thing to do by right? Put an end to this injustice, come down from the cross and get rid of sinful man. But what does the Savior do? He doesn’t take His tunic back, nor does He demand theirs. He gives more than His cloak: He gives His blood. He wants them clothed in His robe of righteousness. You, too. He is living, and dying, by love for you. He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The penitent thief on the cross is a beggar: he’s got nothing to offer the Savior. But still, by faith he says, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t bother Me, I’ve got enough troubles of my own—you look after yourself.” He does not refuse; He gives. He gives life. He gives a place in His kingdom: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” says Jesus in our text, “so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” The only-begotten Son of the Father in heaven is on the cross out of love for His enemies—each and every one of us—for while we were yet sinners and enemies, Christ dies for us. He has a right to far better than crucifixion, but He perfectly set aside what He deserves in order to save you from what you’ve got coming. He takes what you and your sin deserves to give what He’s got coming as the sinless Son of God.
And so you are set free from sin, and this is what sets you free to love others. It’s all a free gift of God’s grace. You didn’t have a right to the absolution this morning. Jesus didn’t say, “Because you’ve done so well, I forgive you all of your sins.” You’re a beggar—you’ve got nothing to offer Jesus in order to earn His favor. He simply said, “I forgive you.” It’s His doing, His gift, His love for you.
You don’t have a right to the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who insists they have a right to the Sacrament has automatically disqualified himself until he has repented. The Supper is not a right or reward for those who have been loving enough to come into God’s presence. It is a meal for beggars, for hungry souls. It is Jesus coming with undeserved forgiveness for you. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
God gives you salvation solely by His grace, solely for the sake of Jesus. You’re no longer an enemy or a beggar: by the grace of Christ, you are a holy child of God, promised an eternity in His household, His kingdom. Your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. You are perfect, whole, complete, all that that God has made you to be. On the Last Day, when Christ raises you from the dead to life everlasting, you shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Such life begins even now, for Jesus’ sake, for you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.