20 February 2011

3rd BEFORE LENT   PROPER 3   Mt 5.38-48

The last verse of today’s Holy Gospel: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

This is a puzzling saying but it is important, so we must try to understand it. Many commentators have puzzled over the word ‘perfect’ and tell us what it meant in Greek and Hebrew. The Cambridge philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, taught us that the meaning of a word is its public use. Context is important so let us consider the context in which the word ‘perfect’ occurs in St Matthew’s Gospel and particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

The third word in our text, ‘therefore’ connects the verse to what has gone before. ‘Be perfect, therefore’. After the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount contains a series of Antitheses. Jesus quotes a commandment from the Law of God and then gives his own commandment which spells out what the Law implies.

Today’s Gospel began with an Antithesis: ‘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.’

Later on there is another Antithesis: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, love your enemies’.

In this last Antithesis, Jesus refers to God the Father as the example we are to follow if we are to be sons of the Father. God bestows his good gifts equally on good and bad people. Similarly we are to love everyone equally, that is we are to have everyone’s best interests at heart. When we do this we are being perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Those who love only those close to them are not being perfect.

‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

The command refers not just to the last Antithesis but to all the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes and all that follows. Jesus is showing what the perfect obedience of God’s law requires. He shows what righteousness requires of us. He is not setting the Law of Moses aside. He said that he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it (Mt 5.17). He shows what fulfilling the law requires of those who will be perfect, perfectly righteous, as God our Father is righteous.

We used to call this Sunday ‘Septuagesima’ reminding us that Lent is approaching and that there are ten weeks to Low Sunday, the octave day of Easter. Catechumens must prepare for their initiation into the Christian mysteries and we must renew our membership in Christ. An excellent way to do this is to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5, 6, and 7 of St Matthew’s Gospel. They contain the Lord’s teaching to us whom he commands to be perfect as our Father in heaven in perfect.

Yet how can we be like God? How can we imitate Christ who is the true image of God? Baptism restored in us that image of God, which was bestowed by God at the creation when he made man and woman in his own image. Our sins have marred that image, so at the beginning of Lent we seek forgiveness and repent and propose sincere amendment. Then we are ready to set out on the way of perfection, as we ask God’s grace to enable us to live out what Jesus has set before us in the Sermon on the Mount.

We can only achieve this perfect life with the aid of the Holy Spirit. What God requires he makes possible, though it takes a life-time to achieve it. Only when God gives us the heavenly crown are we truly made perfect, like him.


Crispin Harrison CR