Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect

‘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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

- Matthew 5:38-48

On reading this passage, and others like it, I find myself in a deep conflict. Are we to countenance criminal behavior? (Say, of those who would like to take all that we have?) No, of course not. Let us examine this further extension of the Old Law.

We begin with "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Many people today (despite the levels of violence in the world) don't realize that when this particular law was given, it was a way of limiting revenge. It was an attempt to create just behavior. Jesus takes it a step further, once again, as he has done in the previous few readings with other aspects of the Old Law. My study bible's helpful notes I once again consult: "Jesus warned his disciples not to resist violence with more violence (contrary to Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). Evil, and the evil person, can be overcome only by good. This keeps us free from anger -- from being poisoned by the evil directed against us and its destructive forces -- and instructs others through Christian forbearance. It brings both us and our enemy under the yoke of God's love. This teaching does not, however, contradict a state's right to protect its citizens and punish criminals." Furthermore, in today's readings is also contained the passage from 1 Corinthians dealing with the immoral among church members. To reconcile all the disparate questions that raise themselves through this passage, I go back to the personal, which Jesus seems here to emphasize. We have to remember that he's talking about ways of strengthening the kingdom through right-relatedness, of practicing love in action. So, I'm going to say again that I don't believe these words are meant to be literal in the sense that we are to allow anyone to rob us of all we own or countenance some other bad behavior. Rather, we are to strive for peace and loving conduct with everyone. We are to practice mercy and kindness. Certainly we can see the deep need around us for more mercy and kindness. More than ever before, I'd say that Jesus' words about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies are deeply and crucially important to our society and our personal relationships. We can't wait for everyone else to embody perfect behavior before we take it upon ourselves to be kind and loving, to at least hold out the possibility of a respectful relationship with others. We must take the initiative when we can. We must search for every open door to the possibility of peace and right-relatedness, the practice of kindness, of treating others as we'd like to be treated. We are to measure our responses to others, even those who have not treated us well, by this standard or possibility. It doesn't mean, however, that we accept unjust or sinful behavior.

Jesus counsels us to 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.' But we know that we are not perfect, nor are we perfectly created as the angels. We make choices, we have free will, we choose to sin. Therefore this admonition cannot be literal in the sense that we are expected to be perfection in some absolute sense. But it is a command that we learn and grow in the practice of love. My study bible reads: "Here is another radical command of Jesus: to love our enemies as a true expression of the life of the Kingdom. Having freed us from hate, sadness, and anger [in the previous expressions of extension of the Old Law into the New], he offers the greatest possession of all -- perfect love. That is a gift which can only be possessed by the one who, by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, manifests God's love for all. Such love calls us to bless, do good, and pray -- even for enemies. Love of neighbor is the sign of having become a true child of God. Love is not merely an emotion. It is a divine grace -- an uncreated divine energy -- which inflames the soul and unites it to God and to other people (see 1 John 4:7-21)." So, while we are to attempt to "Be perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect" we also recall that we have help. We recall that Love is more than a feeling we decide to feel; it is something in which we participate in faith by virtue of Spirit and grace. We can call upon this love to help us to understand how we must deal with difficult, complex, tricky situations in a loving way. Some people say this is quite easy and doesn't require thinking or work but I haven't found that to be so in my life. I have dealt with those who'd love to crush me, to take all I have and leave me with nothing, including my spirit and self-respect. It has been a difficult negotiation to understand the line that would include a righteous standing up for truth and what loving and merciful behavior would dictate. We must remember that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law: he is not talking about avoiding justice or denying truth through the practice of mercy; this is a fulfillment of the Law, a deep internal understanding of how to practice the intent of the Law within ourselves.

We can only turn to Love. What does love dictate? Is love about self-denigration in abusive relationships? Does humility ask us to hide from the truth of bad behavior? No, it asks us to come to terms with all of this under the Love of God and in participation in it. We mustn't forget that we have help. Through prayer is the one and only way I find I can negotiate the seeming contradiction of accepting the reality of our choices for harm and at the same time the command for the practice of love and mercy. I think, from looking around myself, that the world still has quite a long ways to go in learning this one. But we are commanded to learn it.

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