Praying for Perfection

A  sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
and Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Caldwell, Idaho

February 23, 2014

Matthew 5:38-48

There are six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, one thousand verses where God’s own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (for example, Exodus 4:24-26)?” (Walter Wink, p 84, “The Powers that Be, Theology for a New Millenium”)

This is troubling. So much violence.

And yet, we read it and recognize, “yeah, that’s what the world looks like.”

We see violence on TV. An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18.

Violence is so prevalent in our culture that we joke about it and we use violent rhetoric in our speech even though we say we don’t really mean it literally.

A man in Florida managed to avoid a murder conviction last week, although he was found guilty of attempted murder, for firing multiple shots into a car of unarmed black teenagers, who had turned off their loud music when he first complained. He still shot them.  He still killed one of them. And he claimed he was standing his ground. Another man killed a man for using his phone in a movie theater.

School shootings happen and we change the channel.

So much violence.

Our own state Senate has just passed a bill that would allow college students to carry concealed weapons on campus, over the objection of law enforcement, university presidents, and many of the public. Not sure what will happen with the bill, but it seems to enforce the idea that violence is the best response to violence.

Violence in Scripture. Violence in our lives.

As much as I abhor violence, when I hear Jesus say, “Do not resist an evildoer,” I’m conflicted. Surely he doesn’t really mean that?

I want to send this back to Jesus for some editing. I appreciate what Jesus is trying to do here, but it is not very practical in today’s world. On the surface, it seems to give the advantage to the oppressor, the aggressor, the strong.

Yet Jesus preached a radical message of non-violence to his world that was perhaps even more steeped in violence than ours, if you can imagine. I’m sure his original audience didn’t get it any more than we do. Even 2,000 years later, we can’t quite believe he meant what he said.

Because we, as a culture, and often even as a church, have bought into the myth that violence can be “cured” with more violence.

And you can think about that what you will, but Jesus is pretty clear. “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.”

Before we look at what I think Jesus means when he says this, let me say what he isn’t saying.

If you, or someone you love, is in an abusive relationship, he is NOT saying that you should just take the abuse.

What he is saying is that when you encounter violence, you are NOT to respond with violence. The word translated as “resist”, as in “do not resist an evil doer” should conjure up images of armed resistance, not submission.

The Scholars Version translates it this way: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” (Wink, p 101)

So Jesus is NOT telling us to continue to put up with violence. He is not telling us to submit to it. He is telling us to resist violence, but not with more violence.

So, even though Hebrew culture was violent and was living under a violent Roman occupation, Jesus tells his followers that things need to be different, and it has to start with them.

The wisdom of “an eye for an eye” soon leaves the entire world at least half blind.

Jesus wants us to understand, still, 2,000 years later, that if we don’t want the whole world to be blind, we need to change how we treat each other.

One of the reasons I think this entire passage is so difficult for us is because we see people as either being “with” us or “against” us. We have friends and we have enemies. Even if you never use the word “enemy”, there are people we like and people we don’t like and we are certain that those distinctions justify all sorts of behavior.

But Jesus didn’t see the world with those distinctions.

    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.

Whether we’re righteous or unrighteous, evil or good, we are all God’s children on whom the sun rises and the rain falls.

All of us.

No exceptions.

And while Jesus is most certainly concerned about justice for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, he is also most certainly concerned about justice for the powerful, the rich, and the mighty.

Because here is the truth woven throughout the Sermon on the Mount: there is no justice for one of us unless there is justice for all of us.

So, let’s take an eye for an eye scenario.
If you steal my cow, my family will take one of your cows.
If you kill my sister, my family will kill your sister.
If you bomb my village, my village will bomb your village.

We can recognize a sort of justice in that quid pro quo system.

Jesus wants us to understand that the underlying problems that lead someone to kill, steal, or destroy will not be fixed or redeemed with an eye for an eye. “Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy becoming just also.” (Wink p 110)

It isn’t about one side winning or one side losing. Both sides must realize there is only one side, that we are all children of God. An eye for an eye doesn’t allow for that.

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.

Loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.

What does that look like?

If you read my blog, I wrote last week about all of the time I’ve spent at the Capitol recently. During the hours I’ve spent standing in silent witness, or sitting in the House Gallery, or listening to debate and discussion, as I’ve been demonstrating, I’ve also been praying.

Because of this text, because I know of Jesus’ instructions to pray for my “enemies”, I have been praying FOR the people I disagree with. I have refrained, so far, from praying AGAINST them.

I haven’t prayed for them to lose, or to suffer defeat, or to stand up and publicly acknowledge that I am right and they are wrong.

It was tempting, I confess. But it was not my job.

The exercise of praying for everyone in the Capitol—the people I would vote for, the people I would never vote for—changed me. It reminded me of our call to see the people around us as our brothers and sisters. With no exception.

“For God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Jesus’ instructions to us don’t preclude our ability or instruction to be in conflict. We aren’t to just let the bullies get their way. In many ways, his instructions call us to bring conflict into the light, where it can be seen for what it is. But our conflict must not be violent.

It means we have to be in conversation with the people with whom we disagree, so we can truly hear what it is they believe. It means we cannot demonize the “other”. We have to see them as family who have something to teach us. Even if they don’t want to listen to us. We have to listen to them.

I heard this story a number of years ago on NPR. Julio Diaz had just gotten off his train and was planning on heading to his favorite diner for dinner, when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.

“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.

Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.

“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”

The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”

Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”

“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

Our passage this morning ends with Jesus saying “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What does Jesus mean when he says that?

I won’t pretend I have the answer, but stories like the one I just shared give me a glimpse of what direction it wants us to head.

If we look at how God chose to be perfect, it suggests perfection might look differently than our culture would lift it up. It is not the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect large amount of money.

God chose to become flesh and live among us. And so the best way we have to imagine God’s perfection is in how Jesus lived out his life—sacrificially, generously, without concern for personal success but with great concern for the well being of the community.

Here’s a video that illustrates one way of “being perfect as your father in heaven is perfect”:

These are the choices we face each day. Do we respond with an eye for personal justice and success or do we respond with a hope for the continued well being of our neighbors and the community?

Do we seek retributive earthly justice or God’s restorative justice? Are we willing to sacrifice our own comforts and goals to seek Godly perfection?

It is not an easy thing to determine.

For me, one of the greatest gifts of community, in general, and this community, in particular, is that when we come together we can better discern what God is dreaming for us than any of us could alone.

I certainly don’t claim perfection for myself, and not sure I’d use the word to describe any of you either….

But I do think the glimpses of Godly perfection we are likely to see happen when we are busy being the body of Christ to the world. Let’s be perfect as Christ showed us how to be perfect. Grateful to be on this journey with you.

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3 thoughts on “Praying for Perfection

  1. Thank you, Marci, for a really lovely and compelling view of this text, and for a very effective use of video, as well. I have heard or read several sermons on this text today, and yours stands out as the one I will most likely remember the next time i read Matthew 5.

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