By Chip Prehn
The fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel ends with a high expectation: “Be ye therefore perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Indeed, the entire Sermon on the Mount is our best way to know the Savior’s moral vision. In the doctrines and admonishments of Matthew 5, Jesus budges not one inch on the eternal standard of God’s righteousness, but notice that Jesus is at pains to have his auditors understand that eternal standard in the right way. “You have been taught, but I say.”
If the gospel is radical and revolutionary, so Christian ethics must be. Jesus teaches us that God’s righteousness means that God loves those who do not return his love, gives generously to those who never give back, and has mercy on those who certainly don’t deserve it. God created the universe and everything in it, including humankind, and we tend to give the Creator no mind, much less gratitude.
The command to be perfect is only a deeper statement of the startling ethics Jesus presents in the beginning of the chapter in the beatitudes. God Incarnate has arrived in person to turn the world upside down. In that earlier section of the chapter, the Savior says that “happiness” or “blessedness” has to do with understanding, and to some real extent with taking on, the neglect, stupidity, and meanness of the world. As far as God is concerned, doing the right thing, and knowing that you are doing the right thing, even if you’re suffering for it, makes a person happy and joyful in a way analogous to God’s happiness and joy.
This insight or doctrine is stated in an especially bracing way when Jesus declares that those who suffer for the sake of righteousness in this world are by no means cursed but wonderfully blessed. The Heavenly Father to whom Jesus refers without ceasing is the maker of all things, the giver of all things, and the one who delights in everything he’s made even as his human creatures are grossly negligent in giving praise and gratitude for all we’ve received from him.
I don’t know what to do with the classic category of God’s impassibility, but Jesus reveals a God who fully comprehends our suffering. The Greek word makários has been translated in our tradition as blessed (e.g., in the King James version). But the makers of The Good News Bible were more correct to render the Greek into English as happy. I once learned that makários came into classical Greek usage from pagan theology: Makários is a sort of happiness or blessedness to be envied of divine beings.
Jesus does not cast aside the target given us by God in the Torah. Righteousness remains the aim of God’s people in this world, a human-shaped blueprint of what the Lord wants humankind to be. The whole of the demands of the Torah form the shape and dimensions of Jesus Christ, who “fills full” the Torah. You and I can fulfill the demands of Torah by being members of the Christ whose righteousness pleases and is acceptable to the Father.
In passages such as Matthew 5:48, Jesus is at pains to show us how, in the ethics of the gospel, we can make a start in God-like-ness by taking on a very doable, practical ethic: Show mercy to others. If it is really true that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), then I ought to have some little bit of love for other sinners (i.e., everyone). Knowing my sin all too well, and realizing that the only way I’m good is that I’m good at deluding myself about my goodness, I can surely cut others some slack. Showing mercy, forgiving those who don’t deserve it, and reaching out to those who appear to resist such compassion: Jesus says that this is a way you and I can be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. May God give us the grace to be like Jesus every day.