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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Be Perfect, Therefore, as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect | The Hard Sayings of Jesus

‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

‘If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

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

Matthew 5:38–48

Every now and then, in the middle of some relaxing TV programme, I am interrupted by a grunting young man, covered in mud and getting shouted at, in what is clearly a pretty unpleasant ordeal. And the idea is that I might want to endure the same thing. It doesn’t make much sense, but since the Army must have paid an advertising agency lots of money to make this short film, I presume it works.

The last kind of ‘hard saying’ of Jesus is probably the most common type in the New Testament: easy to understand, but well-nigh impossible to live out.

There are various theories about Jesus’ impossible ethics. Perhaps he’s showing us how difficult it really is to live a holy life, and thus make us more aware of our sin. Yet whilst Jesus calls for repentance elsewhere, he doesn’t here.

Or perhaps he’s urging us to just try harder, or rely more on the Holy Spirit – and yet neither of these ideas are hinted at in these verses. This looks like very much like practical teaching for Jesus’ disciples.

There is no doubting how demanding these standards are. ‘An eye for an eye’ originally aimed to limit vengeance by keeping it in proportion – yet Jesus says we are not to seek retribution of any kind from those who wrong us. The person forcing you to go a mile is a soldier of the occupying force, who has brought violence and oppression to your land – yet Jesus would have us offer them a helping hand. Jesus asks us to bless others without distinction, just as God makes the sun shine on all, even those who have done us harm.

But I wonder what would happen if Jesus offered us a compromise – an attainable standard of life – and we all pretended that that was enough? The Army recruitment advert carries a message: you know you are not living life to the full, and if you accept our rigorous demands, you might become better than you ever thought possible. Jesus appears to say the same.

Cardinal Newman once said: ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ In his impossible invitation, Jesus says to us: you can change and live a better life each day. And one day, by his grace, all those changes will complete their work.

Revd Dr Ian Paul