Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)
I nominate Matthew 5:38-48 as the most important passage in Scripture for our time. It conveys the element in Jesus’ teaches ministry which most distinguishes him in human history. Has there ever been anyone else prior to Jesus to teach that perfect love reaches out to include even enemies?
It is also implies the theology that stands out as transcendent to the default theology of human evolution. The latter is the god of our tribe, our nation, our group — the god-on-our-side. But a God who teaches to love even enemies pushes humankind toward experiencing God anew as the God who embraces all human beings — the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Paul the Apostle extends this theology to make God’s action in Jesus the Messiah to be about making peace, in what I consider a close second as the most important Scripture for our time:
For [the Messiah] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace… (Eph. 2:14-15)
There is no longer us and them; there is only us. And we meet a God for all, no longer any god-on-our-side. This dawning peace brings “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” to its logical conclusion.
From the perspective of Mimetic Theory, isn’t this the crucial pivot point of our human evolution? We evolved with the Scapegoat Mechanism at the foundation of all our human cultures, meaning that all our cultures are structured on an us-them basis and then justified by the god-on-our-side. Paul in Romans 5:12-21 maps this pivot in the typology of the First Anthropos, Adam, and the Second Anthropos, the Messiah. One is formed in disobedience and the second opens the possibility of obedience: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). What constitutes obedience? The Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:38-48. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Love your enemies.
This points to the anthropological and theological revolution which has yet to take place. Christendom lapsed back into the god-on-our-side of empire, and Christians are still struggling to recover. Many American Christians, especially white Christians, are eager to embrace the nationalistic message of a Donald Trump, in which everything is deeply structured in terms of an us-and-them. Following Donald Trump precludes following Jesus the Messiah in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. Elements of our situation are eerily similar to the nationalism of the Nazi movement, and Luther Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found that his go-to text in the face of rising Nazism was the Sermon on the Mount (see one of the few books he was able to publish before being martyred by the Nazis, Discipleship.)
An irony of history, one that follows the paradox of a Crucified Messiah (an outsider to everyone’s culture!), is that first significant glimpses in our time of obedience to Jesus’ teaching came through a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi. In my last blog on these pages (“Have a Courageous New Year”), I even suggested that God sent Gandhi with perfect timing. At the very moment in history when human beings created weapons capable of self-annihilation, God sent us a man who could, in obedience to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, give us a nonviolent way of waging war. It is a way of waging war “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It is a way of war that seeks not to defeat human enemies but to turn enemies into friends. As Rev. Dr. William Barber II puts it, “A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle” (The Third Reconstruction, p. 93).
I offer these reflections on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A, the only Sunday in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary that takes Matthew 5:38-48 as its Gospel Reading. If I were to propose one change to the RCL it would be to find a way to use this passage on a more regular basis. Acts 10:34-43 — the very important opening of Peter’s sermon in the home of Cornelius — is used four times in the RCL — the Baptism of Our Lord A, and all three years on Easter Day. We need to find another day to use Matthew 5:38-48 in a similar fashion. And the shortcoming of the RCL on this score is accentuated by the fact that the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A is skipped over more often than not. It’s appearance relies on having a date for Easter that is late (at least three Sundays into April). In recent years, for example, there was a 21-year gap between appearances! — 1990 to 2011 — the intervening five cycles of Year A falling when Easter was too early. (Strangely, Easter has been late enough the last three cycles of Year A — 2011, 2014, 2017.) In any case, I leave you with my webpage for Epiphany 7A, as well as my sermon on this text which echoes this blog (especially making use of Brian McLaren’s treatment of the passage in The Secret Message of Jesus), “The Most Important Passage in the Bible.”
Happy Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany! May God in Jesus Christ make us perfect in love!