Pavarotti soaring in Nessun Dorma*… magnificent; Astaire and Rogers floating through Cole Porter’s Night and Day… breathe taking; Olivier’s menacing Richard III… brilliant; but for pure soul stirring impact, Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount is as good as it gets. But in a media age, if the images don’t move and the mood isn’t captured by music, if the thought takes more than 140 characters to convey, that means we need to think. We need to work at it to take in the full impact of the words on the page. But too often, digging into scripture and coming to grips with its implications are sadly neglected priorities.
That’s why this is our fourth consecutive Sunday of slowly working our way, word by word, through all 48 verses of the fifth chapter of Matthew. And as we see again in this week’s gospel, every verse pays-off in inspiration. The depth, the breadth, the language, the passion are all unparalleled. But it is the content, not the presentation, that is the most remarkable aspect of Christ’s mountain-side message.
Two-thousand years have passed and the words are as challenging and revolutionary as the day they were delivered. The entire relationship of God and man has been redefined. Love is the new paradigm of life. Starting with The Beatitudes calling us to remodel our behavior, through the light of the world call to discipleship, to the redefining of morality and human purpose as love of God and neighbor… Jesus leads us step by step to this week’s call to perfection. Jesus wants us to be as good as it gets. He wants us to be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And in plain, powerful language he tells us how to make that happen: Do not repay evil with evil. Do not ever, ever turn away from those in need. Share til it hurts and then share some more. Without exception, all of God’s children are our sisters and brother; cherish them. Taken as broad-brush concepts, the message is easy to accept and to honor. But talk is cheap. And worse than cheap, it is a sacrilege to mouth the words of Christ without the slightest intention to live by them.
Jesus is telling us that when it comes to real-life, everyday decisions, that marginally moral behavior is not acceptable. It’s not why the Father made us. It’s not why the Son died for us. Hoping to squeak by with a minimum of effort and inconvenience is a formula for failure. And more than anything, Jesus wants us to succeed. So he calls us to be perfect, even though he knows we are flawed. He loves us in our sins and calls us to rise above them… always aiming higher.
Many folks have closed the pages on this gospel and gone away mumbling: Why bother? I’ll never be perfect; why even try? They miss the point of Christ’s call to perfection. C.S. Lewis puts the point in perspective, God does not say: “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you… if he meant that our position is hopeless. I think he meant ‘The only help I will give you is to become perfect. You may want something less; but I will give you nothing less.’ Once you call him in, he will give you the full treatment.” The love of God comes in only one grade… super, high-test, premium.
Only one person has ever achieved perfection here on earth. And he urges us to follow him. If we do, if we spend our days honestly trying our best to know and live his gospel, he promises his grace and protection. And he promises more. We truly will be perfect on the day when we finally stand before him. And that’s as good as it gets.