Be Perfect

A study on the Sermon on the Mount has bought me to a startling command from Jesus. Most of us are familiar with the “love your neighbor” teachings, as well as the “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” part, but I had really not noticed how this section ends. Take a look at verse 48:

Matthew 5 (NIV)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? 

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Do you think that is even possible? To be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect? That seems like a big ask.

Jesus relates this to the instructions to love and pray for our enemies for a reason. Imagine what the world would be like if we took that one verse to heart and truly did strive every day to love people who hate us. And we know that when we pray for people who persecute us, that prayer changes US.

In researching a sermon on this passage, I stumbled upon these wise words from Thomas Merton, an American Trappist Monk. Merton wrote over 50 books on spirituality, faith, comparative religion, and theology.

“Do not be too quick,” he wrote, “to assume that your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him, he would no longer be your enemy.

Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God. For it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.”

There is much to ponder here. Do you have an enemy? Do you love that person? Can you pray for that person?

When we focus on this kind of accepting and grace filled agape love, we indeed move the needle a little closer to the perfection of the Heavenly Father. One thing is certain … we will surely never achieve it if we don’t even try.

Perfect Sunrise by Wende Pritchard

Jesus’ Way

We continue our exploration of Jesus’ ethics in the Sermon on the Mount. In typical Jesus fashion, he is about to flip the table on what people thought they knew on several subjects. Today we tackle adultery and divorce. (By the way, for those of you who are The Real Housewives of New Jersey fans, please don’t think that Teresa Giudice was the first table-flipper. Oh, no. That accolade belongs to our Lord. But I digress.)

Matthew 5 (New Living Translation)

27 “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 

People of a certain age will remember a very controversial comment made by presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in an interview with Playboy magazine where he talked about sex and forgiveness, stating that God had forgiven him for “committing adultery of the heart by lusting.” Suffice it to say that this clear understanding of Jesus’ ethical view on adultery nearly cost him the election. (You can read more about this here.)

Jesus is on the right track. One thing that the “Me, Too” movement exposed was the level of adultery being committed against unwilling participants who were subjected to inappropriate comments, touching, veiled threats, misogyny, and rape. Adultery in Jesus’ ethics is not confined to sexual infidelity between two married people, but rather addresses a wide range of destructive and harmful behavior that undermines society. Jesus’ ethics are more concerned with the purity of the heart than the strict adherence to the law.

29 So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

What can we say about this except Jesus ain’t playing. Many a high positioned leader … from the White House to the local school to the local pulpit … have fallen hard after committing adultery of the heart. It’s Jesus’ way.

Teaching about Divorce

31 “You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’32 But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.

To put this into perspective, the law of Moses only granted men the right to divorce. It became a freewheeling way for men to get out of a marriage. The simple written notice was all that was required to sever a marriage. Women, of course, had no say in the matter at that time.

Jesus upped the ante with this statement. He reminded the men that there is more to a marriage than a legal contract … there is a heart contract as well. He pressed the issue here by reminding the men that there must be sufficient grounds to divorce, and narrowed the conversation even farther to identify those grounds as unfaithfulness on the wife’s part. Divorce set up a chain of adultery because the heart contract can’t be broken, even though under Moses’ law, the written notice suffices. Jesus explained that adultery resulted when two people are still married in the eyes of God but the wife has been “dismissed with a notice.”

While the divorce laws have obviously drastically changed since then, don’t miss the important part here: what we do, say, feel, and believe in our hearts matters. Matters of the heart trump matters of the law every time. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

1 Corinthians 6 (Amplified Bible)

12 Everything is permissible (allowable and lawful) for me; but not all things are helpful (good for me to do, expedient and profitable when considered with other things). 

The application of these passages is clear. What you believe in your heart matters. Every attitude and behavior we have flows from the heart. When the heart is kept pure and in alignment with God’s word, things go well for us and we continue to be centered in God’s will. When the heart is corrupt, the body follows and we risk being “thrown into hell.”

How is your heart today, friend? It’s never too late to change.

So Goes the Heart by Kathy Schumacher

Amplified Ethics

When I was a young college student studying journalism, we were required to take an upper-level course on Journalistic Ethics. That may give you an indication as to my age, for surely it appears that recent graduates of communications degree programs are no longer required to study it. The cynic in me wonders if more emphasis is being placed on strategies of click-baiting, how to write a misleading lede, and how to pass off fake news entertainment as factual investigative reporting. Is it just me?

Today we are going to look at Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” in the fifth chapter of Matthew to explore Jesus’ ethics. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what my professors, news people, politicians, or even world leaders think about ethics. It only matters what Jesus thought. Watch for phrases like “but I say to you” and “therefore.” These are indications that Jesus is about to amplify the current understanding and application of what is ethical.

He begins with the standard Ten Commandment statement on the subject of murder:

Matthew 5 (Common English Bible)

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.

This understanding is completely in line with the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” But watch where Jesus takes it next:

22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 

Jesus is warning about the deadly effects of anger, name-calling, and put-downs. By associating these things with murder, he is raising the bar on our understanding of killing. Can you kill someone’s self-esteem with a derogatory remark? You bet. Can you choke the life out of someone’s joy by spewing out your anger at them? You know you can, and you probably have.

Next, Jesus pivots to forgiveness and reconciliation. Here he raises the bar even higher by stating that you should not come to the altar until you make things right with everyone who has something against you. The fact that the pews are filled every Sunday may be an indication that we don’t take this literally, for surely our churches would be empty if this was a requirement of admission:

23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 

Then Jesus gives guidance about how to settle disputes quickly in fair and civil terms, rather than drag grievances through the court.

25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:26 to not let the sun go down on our wrath. Jesus urges us to quickly settle our disputes so that they don’t fester and grow, and so that we can move past them and get on with things. In a beautiful figure of speech, he likens a drawn-out dispute to being in prison, where you realize that you’ve become jailed because you didn’t resolve an issue before it was too late. This is also an illusion to the kind of eternity that we subject ourselves to when we refuse to deal swiftly with an adversary.

We will deal with the rest of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount in our next devotional, but for now, consider this: are you guilty of “murder” in Jesus’ definition? Are you killing someone’s joy or hope? Are you harboring a grudge as you worship and pray? Have you let a falling out go on for too long?

According Jesus’ ethics, these things have changed.

So must you.

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down by Carol Riggin