Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany | Matthew 5.38-48
You have heard it said that practice makes perfect.
But that was never really true.
And it’s why, to this day, I tend to play left field way too shallow;
Because that’s how I practiced back when the other kids could barely hit past the infield.
And so, sometime in the ‘90s, the saying was revised.
Then you heard it said that perfect practice makes perfect.
That was certainly an improvement.
And it has been a great line for high-school basketball coaches ever since.
And it is, in fact, true.
Practice perfection perfectly, and you will be perfect.
It’s good to know. Because that’s the requirement.
Jesus says this morning that you must be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When you heard Him say that, you may have begun to wonder:
Where do you start a project that big?
Let’s begin in verse 38. Let’s begin with your eyes and your teeth.
Despite what Jesus said last week about the potential benefits of gouging them out,
I notice you still have yours.
That’s good, and it probably means you were paying attention during the sermon.
But in the last seven days, it seems that no enemies have come to rip them out either.
Really, aside from overly aggressive dentists and ophthalmologists,
Your eyes and teeth are probably not in much danger.
But the words you just heard about eyes and teeth were never really about eyes and teeth.
Once upon a time the practice was that people who were seeking revenge didn’t want to just get even, as if that were virtuous; they wanted more.
And so for an insult, the injured party would go and take a life.
Not to be outdone, that victim’s family would go and take two lives.
And so on, and so forth, until there was no one left.
So, if you heard it said “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,”
And that sounded brutal or cruel, you might imagine the alternative of war without end.
It shouldn’t be difficult.
Most arguments go something like that.
They start with a perceived slight or a lack of consideration,
An offhand comment or a sideways glance.
In your head it is usually some version of the unrighteous persecutor
Slapping you, the martyr, on your cheek,
Which you piously suffer in silence, only to turn and offer the other cheek as well.
But that is a fantasy, and you know it.
In the real world you strike back, again, harder.
Then its their turn. They respond in kind.
And on it goes until everyone is in the kitchen crying.
You knew from the start where this would end.
But that didn’t stop you from rehearsing this scene one more time.
Practice makes perfect.
The behavioral health people call stuff like that childish,
But even toddlers have the sense to just go grab back their toy from the one who took it
Without taking something extra.
Teddy bear for teddy bear, and lego for lego – but no more than that.
They haven’t had much practice yet.
The pathological desire to retaliate is so intense,
That eye for eye and tooth for tooth would be an improvement.
But retaliation is not what Jesus has in mind.
The “eye for an eye” principle of retaliation,
for all your personal offenses, is no longer valid in the new age.
The atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross has actually ushered in a new dimension of reality.
In the world Jesus has remade, among the people Jesus has remade, and in His Holy Church, the principle of revenge can no longer reign.
In Jesus’ perfect and atoning sacrifice, God has surrendered the right of retaliation by satisfying it.
On the cross Jesus does not limit Himself to eyes and teeth.
On the cross, God does not get even with mankind by punishing His Son.
There, Jesus does not merely do what was necessary for our salvation.
He does more.
He is the one who does not surrender only His robe, but who allows Himself to be stripped naked as He is nailed to the tree.
And so we are pointed to a God who exceeds His own demands.
This is why disciples of Jesus may only return good for the evil done to them.
Jesus death for sin makes the law of retaliation inoperative.
Every claim that man has against man has been satisfied in the death of Christ.
(Scaer, Sermon on The Mount, 128)
On the cross, Jesus willfully and freely surrenders all He has.
Life, breath, clothing, and perfect righteousness.
All these things, He gives to you.
He gave them to you.
When you heard His voice and promise.
When you felt the splash.
When He places Himself on your tongue, minutes from now.
He gives you His perfection.
This was never going to come from your own efforts.
You were never going to even the score with God’s Law.
You would never give up enough clothes, suffer enough abuses, or walk enough miles.
God’s perfect law is fulfilled in the love.
When Jesus came and made everyone His neighbor, and loved them to the end.
In Christ you are perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
This does not mean that there is no room for practice.
We’re headed into Lent soon.
And that will be a time for discipline.
It will be a time for practice.
And you can go into that time with confidence and joy.
He has suffered the violence you dealt Him.
And so you can forego retaliation.
He’s covered you with His righteousness,
and so you don’t have to be concerned with your jacket.
You’re free to give it away.
Neither do you have to worry about time spent walking an extra mile, since Christ has won for you eternity.