Epiphany 7 A: Telos
Ahh, the temptations we preachers are going to feel as we read this difficult passage! I’ve preached it enough, and you probably have to, to be familiar with at least two of them.
The first will be to not take it seriously. I call this the “Lutheran temptation” simply because when Lutherans get to really difficult says from Jesus, we tend to assume that Jesus didn’t really expect us to do these things, only to remind us of our inability to satisfy God’s commands so that we might flee to Jesus for forgiveness and grace. While I’m not sure this actually reflects Luther’s thought, some of his descendants have figured that, knowing the outcome, we shouldn’t even bother trying all that hard but just flee to Jesus’ forgiveness immediately. But what if Jesus was serious? I mean, if you read it this way, pretty much the whole sermon on the mount was a set-up, climaxing in these difficult words and the seemingly even more outrageous ones to follow: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The second temptation will be to take them too seriously. As in, believing that we’ve got it in us to do all this. I call this the Pelagian temptation, as the heresy of that 4th-century monk who so vexed Augustine was his belief that we can overcome sin – in ourselves and in the world – and do all that is necessary. And, frankly, I think Pelagius’ overconfidence still haunts us. Oh, I know, none of us thinks of ourselves as Pelagians. But each time we urge our folks to rid themselves (the conservative version) or society (the liberal version) of sin and sit back waiting for it to happen, we fall prey to the temptation to think ourselves sufficient and end up not really needing God’s grace, only God’s instruction and encouragement.
So what’s an honest working preacher – okay, I couldn’t resist – to do? How about this – jump to the end of this passage first. You know, the ridiculously hard part: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” One key observation here: the word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”
Interesting. Read this way, Jesus’ words are less command than promise. God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Can we do this – turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us? No, not perfectly. On some days, maybe not at all. But that’s not really the point. It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we really believe Jesus actually is bringing in God’s kingdom, and to realize that we get to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.
This approach doesn’t forget or even minimize the presence of sin in us or in the world. But neither does it assume God is limited by our sin. Rather, it takes seriously that we are always being called by Jesus to be more than we thought we could and invited to claim our identity as God’s chosen and beloved people as we live in the world. Jesus’ message here – returning hate with love, turning the other cheek, praying for those who stand against us – is incredibly counter-cultural. I mean, this will not win you an election. But it may help change the world for the better. Change, not save. Again, that’s Jesus’ job, and because Jesus has promised to do that, we’re free to take care of the corner we live in, practicing to live like Jesus’ disciples throughout the week and then returning to church each Sunday to be reminded of Jesus’ grace and forgiveness and to be sent out once more to live as part of Jesus’ kingdom.
Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. And St. Augustine at the Lord’s Supper would invite people to “receive who you are” and then “go become what you have received.” This Sunday is a chance to continue receiving the identity God gives us and to become the person God has created us to be, and we might invite our people both to consider who they are called to be and begin practicing it, perhaps by trying to pray for someone with whom we struggle. It’s a small step, but one we might take in grace and freedom.
You’ll know how best to help your community receive this gift of identity and promise of purpose, Dear Partner. Please know as you do that God has called you to share God’s word and promise of grace, identity, and presence, and I am grateful for how you live into that calling. Blessings on your proclamation.
Yours in Christ,