Chapter 3: The Call to Perfection (Matthew 5:38-48)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter 3: The Call to Perfection (Matthew 5:38-48)

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 one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.--Matthew 5:38-48

In the movie Witness the central character is John Book. He is a Philadelphia policeman who is being hunted by his corrupt chief. John hides out in an Amish community. One day, dressed in Amish clothing, he goes with others to town, where the Amishmen are taunted by young toughs. Although he is told that striking back is not the Amish way, he smashes one of the bullies in the face, breaking his nose. Those watching the film find it difficult not to feel righteous satisfaction at seeing the bully get "better than he gave." However, the beating comes to the attention of the local police and leads to John's chief finding where he is hiding. The chief and his confederates invade the Amish community with guns, and the matter is not "settled" until there has been killing.

The incident reminds us of the imperfect nature of justice in a none-too-perfect world. Certainly there must be police, else the strong would prey on the weak. Certainly there must be measured retribution-an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth-else no eye or tooth would be safe. Yet the police may be corrupted (John's chief was dealing in drugs) and prey on the weak; and even "good cops" like John Book exceed the limits of the law. A smashed face is greater retribution than taunting deserves.

It is to disciples living in a world of imperfect justice that Jesus issues his call to perfection: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." If you are insulted with a backhand to the face, you are not to seek retribution. If you lose your shirt in a court case, give your accuser your cloak as well. (Israelite law forbade the judge to take away a poor man's cloak; it was his only protection against the night's cold.) If a soldier in an occupying army, exercising the right of conquest, forces you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it two.

Christians are to live in society in a manner that goes beyond nicely balancing rights and sanctions, injuries and restitutions. We are to seek a perfection that lies beyond the imperfections of human systems of law and order. Our goodness must exceed that of the John Books of this world.

A Counsel of Perfection?

What are we to make of Jesus' call to his disciples to practice such radical ethics in personal relations? Some have charged that this is a "counsel of perfection," which dooms anyone who tries to follow it to failure, guilt, and endless remorse. Such critics rightly argue that the chief bar to right behavior is self-hatred. Therefore, they contend, why add to that burden by laying on human beings a demand for goodness that is clearly beyond them? For a few who hanker after sainthood, the vision of such perfection may shine like a halo. For the rest of us it looks more like a crown of thorns.

That might be a fair indictment of Jesus' demands if we understood perfection as some kind of moral purity. Jesus does indeed acknowledge that he is asking for perfection; he says at the end of the passage, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." But the perfection he calls his disciples to achieve is not based on a moral ideal; rather, Jesus grounds his interpretation of the Law in God's own actions. As he says, "[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." God is not busy with vengeance on evildoers, with keeping score, with evening things up. Rather, God allows both the evil and the good to have the benefit of daily sunshine and seasonal rain.

And just as Jesus' understanding of God's perfection is not of some unapproachable holiness, neither does Jesus demand of his disciples an impossible moral purity. The term "perfect" as Jesus uses it means whole, intact, undivided. "It refers to devotion to God, not to the flawlessness of a rounded personality brought to the utmost pitch of perfection. . . . Jesus calls God perfect not because God is aloof and totally unlike man, but precisely the reverse: God is totally, undividedly devoted to man; he is faithful to his covenant; he is totally given to those he loves" (Schweizer, p.135).

What Jesus calls the disciples to do is quite well within the range of human behaviors that even you and I can manage. He does not ask them --or us -- to walk on water or turn stones into bread. He asks, rather, that when attacked we refrain from retaliation; that we not settle our disputes in courts of law; that we give to those who beg and lend to those who would borrow, and that we pray for our enemies. These are not easy things to do; but they are not impossible. "To be perfect is not the ideal of the monk; it is the obligation of every Christian" (Meier, p. 55).

Take, for example, the injunction, "If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Gandhi built a massive political movement on the ability of ordinary persons to respond to violence in a nonviolent manner; so did Martin Luther King, Jr. If civil rights activists could march from Selma to Montgomery under the threat of dogs and cattle prods and water hoses, cannot you and I take a slap in the face without slapping back?

Let us not fudge the matter: What we have in the fifth chapter of Matthew -- as illustrated in the summons to turn the other cheek-is a call to perfection, a summons from Jesus to a kind of goodness, if you please, that reflects the very goodness of God. Made in God's image, we are to behave in a way that gives God credit for God's behavior! "God thus resembles a mold, for man's clay to conform to" (Schweizer, p. 135). Jesus calls for human behavior grounded in the actions of God. "We love, because [God] first loved us" is the way the writer of the First Epistle of John put it (1 John 4:19).

Let us be clear: Jesus' plea that we not resist evildoers is not the statement of a universal ideal or a moral principle. Rather it is what in this book we have termed a call. Like the summons to the fishermen to leave their normal occupation, the call to nonresistance is a summons to behave in a way that is not normal for human beings. For the natural instinct of us all is to strike back, to exact revenge, to get even, to keep score.

When I was a seminary student, I spent a summer as counselor at a boys' camp. We tried to give to kids who spent much of their lives on the sidewalks of New York a notion of what the new life in Christ was about, and that meant a brief devotional period after lights out. One night I gave to the fourteen-year-olds in my cabin a brief exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, including the injunction to "turn the other cheek." No sooner had I finished speaking when a potato came flying in the door and struck Rimmler on the side of the head. He leaped from his bunk and fired the potato back at the tent across the way. Thus began the Great Potato War, which raged unchecked for the better part of an hour. The natural man --or boy -- responds to a blow on the cheek by seeking to return that blow, with interest!

God displays very unhuman characteristics in allowing rain and sun to fall on the just and the unjust. What's more, God displays divine mercy in actively reaching out to pardon evil and injustice! In the eleventh chapter of Hosea, the prophet represents God as repenting of punishment that had been planned for Israel. God says:

I will not execute my fierce anger,

I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and not man,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come to destroy.

-Hosea 11:9

The heart of God is not so much reflected in sunshine and rain as it is in the cross, where God literally turned the other cheek to the enemies of goodness and justice. Jesus, the obedient son, fulfilled the words of the prophet:

I gave my back to the smiters,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.

-Isaiah 50:6

If you and I want to be called sons and daughters of God, we are to act in the same way.

Our Call

Our call, then, as believers in Jesus Christ and members of his church, is to act toward others as God has acted toward us: to turn the other cheek, to offer no active resistance to evil actions. We are not to try to even the score when we are wronged; rather, we are to refuse to keep going the endless cycle of crime, revenge, more crime, more revenge. Moreover, we are to actively pray for our enemies -- those who rob us, strike us, revile us, and wish us ill.

If I am verbally assaulted in a meeting, I am not to repay in kind. If someone knocks me aside in crowding into the subway car, I am not to push back. If there is a neighbor whose dislike for me is exhibited in small annoyances, I am to pretend that nothing is amiss. Moreover, I am to pray for my enemies. Those people whom I love to hate, upon whom in my fantasies I exact such sweet revenge, I am to ask God to bless!

It is important, in discussing this highly controversial passage from the Sermon on the Mount, that we pause here to say clearly what this call of Jesus is not about: It is not a promise that if we treat others in a nonviolent way they will treat us in a similar fashion. The call is grounded not in the nature or propensity of human beings but in the behavior of God. Nor is it a command to create, through law or practice, a nonviolent society. It is not even a general rule about nonresistance to all evil. "The doctrine of absolute non-resistance to evil is not enunciated here: the issue is one of individual conduct in specific circumstances" (Hill, p. 127). It is a call to Christians, who live in a violent and revenge-filled world, to shun retaliation and revenge and to show appreciation for God's patience and mercy by showing patience and mercy.

It is also useful to put the call to nonresistance to evil in historical context. What Jesus did was to move a long step beyond the ancient lex talionis, the law of revenge, which sought to limit retaliation to proportionate degrees: only "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Most contemporary systems of justice are built upon a similar notion:

The punishment for a violent crime should be proportional to the offense. If a man robs me, he is to spend time in jail; he is not to be executed. If a man steps on my toe, I am entitled to an apology; not to having his foot cut off!

Jesus went beyond this ancient and honorable notion that vengeance is to be proportional to the offense. His call to his disciples was to give up the notion of the proportional response, to forswear revenge, to break the old cycle of wrong-punishment-wrong-punishment. And that was grounded on the action and character of God, not on any optimistic notion of human nature. If God lets the needed rains fall on evil and good, just and unjust, we are to behave in like manner.

Of course, one must believe that indeed God "sends rain on the just and on the unjust" alike! One could decide that God has not been playing fair with his rain and take matters into one's own hands. My wife and I were on an archaeological dig in the Southwest in which the indisputable evidence was that members of one village had killed and burned the inhabitants of a neighboring village -- and had then built their own homes upon the burned bones and charred roofs of their neighbors. The only explanation that the archaeologist could give was this: The rains had fallen unevenly upon the fields of these peoples. Those upon whose fields the rains had not fallen had decided that their more favored neighbors were practicing witchcraft; why else would some fields be blessed with rain while adjacent fields went dry?

Whenever I am angry at someone, I hope I remember those villages and what happened. It is very easy, when one is wronged, to suppose that the fault is no accident, that the person who was the agent of the hurt is himself or herself "wrong" and to let ourselves become instruments of God's justice instead of imitators of God's mercy. How quick we are to undertake to redress what God or nature has done amiss! If we are unhappy or unlucky or miserable, someone must be to blame. Almost any hurt or slight will be an excuse for violent retaliation, out of all proportion to the hurt or slight. And like the villagers on our mountain site in New Mexico, we take out after the others with vengeance. Since we are "good" and the others are "evil," nothing we can do is to be faulted. To those heavens from which rain has fallen unevenly, we cry for vengeance --and to those heavens we look for vindication for our actions.

Against this excess, to which all humans are prone, Jesus protested. Better to suffer a blow, a deprivation, an insult than to make oneself the agent of God's wrath and justice.

In Lords of the Plain, a novel about cavalry actions in Texas, Max Crawford puts these words into the mouth of the defense attorney for Comanche braves on trial for the massacre of a wagon train:

"I will now speak to you of reason and mercy, of forgiveness and understanding. I will speak to you against violence and hatred, against blind passion and brute strength. I will speak to you of vengeance and its folly. I will speak to you of wrongs begetting wrongs till there be no end to wrongs. I will speak to you of making ourselves good men, strong and gentle, who will put an end to our war and vengeance and stupid, stupid bloodshed. I will speak to you of the way we are now and of the way that we may yet be."

This plea follows a long description of the wrongs and hurts suffered by the Scots-Irish forebears of the members of the jury, and of the hurts these forebears had laid on others in return.

History is rich in examples of the futility of trying to "even the score." The current state of affairs in the Middle East is another case in point: Both Israeli and Arab have decided that the only justice to be had is "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But somehow the violence returned upon the doer of violence is never quite proportional; someone innocent always gets caught in the crossfire. And that innocent one is turned into an agent of vengeance.

Not that Jesus promised that if we turned the other cheek we would create a society of nonviolence! I once stepped between two army buddies who were pounding on each other; all I got for my pains were a couple of blows to the head. Rather, Jesus seems to have seen that "an eye for an eye" does not deliver the justice it seems to promise; like the command of Moses to allow divorce, it was given men "because of their hardness of heart." But it was not grounded in the action of God, and so had to be superseded.

One might well interject that most of us -- unless we go about meddling in the quarrels of others -- are not in much danger of being slapped in the face. So should we not seek to extract from this passage in Matthew some general rules for conduct, some program of nonviolence, an ethics of pacifism perhaps?

No. Let us take the commands of Jesus as concrete, specific calls to obedience. If in the course of an ordinary day we are not struck in the face or accosted by beggars or taken to court or hit up for a loan, there are plenty of other demands on our time for faithful living! However, there is one item in the list of commands that most of us can do every day of our lives: Pray for our enemies.

When he leads persons in a study of our passage from the Sermon on the Mount, master teacher Walter Wink asks them to do the following: Bring into consciousness an enemy; conduct an imaginary dialogue with that person, in which you accuse him or her of the evil he or she seems to intend, imagining what he or she might say in response; then pray for the well-being of that person. In such a spiritual exercise, one finds oneself both nearer to God and farther from perfection than one would like! However, one finds that it is possible to pray for one's enemies. and in the act of praying, the enemy becomes more like oneself, less a threat, less a terror.

I have an alcoholic friend who was sent off for a time to a sanitarium to dry out. When he was gone, his workmates tried to get him fired; only the determined action of his wife saved his job. When he returned, he brought a violent hatred of those who had wished him harm. Although he started to pray for them, for the first month all he could do was to curse them before God. But eventually he found that he could pray for their well-being, and his rage and wrath became manageable.

In this chapter, I have dealt chiefly with one of Jesus' illustrations of what it means to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." We are to "turn the other cheek" and to pray for those who persecute us. The same case could be made for the commands to give more than is demanded in a court settlement, to go the second mile, to give to beggars, to give to borrowers. These, too, are calls to perfection. The call is not confined to the areas of law and order but to all of social relationships. "Jesus demolishes all the fences into which men would confine love of neighbor" (Schweizer, p. 133).

Jesus' call to perfection is a summons to act as God acts. In matters of justice and retribution, we are to follow the example of One who is not our implacable judge but who pronounces us-the guilty ones-as innocent. As our heavenly Father is perfect, so are we to be perfect. It is the least we can do for God.