The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best know piece that is unique to Matthew’s gospel (as it is assembled, although much of the material in the Sermon is found throughout Luke’s gospel) and there are scholars who have spent their entire careers focused on this small section of Matthew’s gospel. You don’t have to be a scholar to read the Sermon on the Mount and see that it calls the hearer to a different set of values than one will see practiced in the world around them. As a hearer you have the choice of how to respond to this expansion on the law given to Moses, the practices of prayer, fasting, how one values one’s treasurers and what one does with them, judging and more in this initial teaching section of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew constructed the gospel to quickly bring us to this first block of teaching and instruction and Matthew spends a lot of space in the gospel listening to the teaching of Jesus and letting it shape the community that hears it.
The words of the Sermon on the Mount have often been viewed as: an unattainable ethic which serves only to drive us to the grace of Christ, an interim ethic to bring about a radical reorientation in the context of Jesus’ presence and the quickly approaching judgment (which didn’t occur as expected in most reconstructions following this view) or a perfectionist ethic that Christ does expect Christians to follow. Each of these approaches in their own way minimize the imperative to attempt to live into the vision the sermon presents. Prior to Luther the way of life embodied in the Sermon on the Mount was mainly limited to those who had separated themselves in monastic communities but one of the impacts of the Reformation was the ideal of bringing the reading, interpretation and the living of scripture as actions of the entire church was the perceived impossibility of all the baptized keeping this ethic. The solution for Luther, as one example, was perfect doctrine rather than perfect practice:
We cannot be or become perfect in the sense that we do not have any sin, the way they dream about perfection. Here and everywhere in Scripture “to be perfect,” means in the first place, that doctrine be completely correct and perfect, and then, that life move and be regulated according to it. (LW 21:129)
In fairness to Martin Luther, he did believe that correct doctrine would lead to a reformed way of living, that faith would lead a Christian to be a perfectly dutiful servant of all. Yet the perfectionistic way in which we frame the Sermon on the Mount I believe prevents us from honestly wrestling with the way of life that Matthew is presenting to those who would be disciples of Jesus.
Although I will deal with the translation of Matthew 5:48 when I reach that section, I do believe it is important enough to deal with up front because it is a crucial verse. The NRSV translates this final verse of the fifth chapter, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Many scholars follow the translation in a manner like O. Wesley Allen,
Likewise, there are idealistic expectations in the discourse that seem beyond the reach of any normal, finite, sinful human being or human community summed up in the expression, “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect. (Allen, 2013, p. 53)
The word translated as perfect is telios which is a word with the connotation of completeness, or reaching an end/goal, of being mature or grown up. As a person who grew up in the individualistic ethos that is instilled in people who grow up in the United States, perfection is a term which depends upon individual rigor in attending to the letter of the law but one of the things I’ve discovered in my time studying the Hebrew Scriptures is that the law is always directed towards the community. An individual may act righteously or wickedly, they may be innocent or blameless but the law itself is always directed towards the life of the community. When I studied Deuteronomy, for example, I framed my examination of the law in terms of the type of society they were attempting to create. If the Sermon on the Mount is about the type of community that the kingdom of heaven embodies, as I will argue, then perhaps it is a primer in how to live together as the people of God rather than a model for individual perfection.
Jesus doesn’t seem to focus his ministry on attaining moralistic perfection, but instead the kingdom of heaven seems to be much more related toward surprising compassion towards the people Jesus encounters. As E. P. Sanders can state:
Secondly, the overall tenor of Jesus’ teaching is compassion toward human frailty. He seems not to have gone around condemning people for their minor lapses. He worked not among the powerful, but among the lowly, and he did not want to be a stern taskmaster or a censorious judge, who would only add to their burdens…
Thirdly, Jesus did not live a stern and strict life. For most of us the word ‘perfectionism’ calls up images of severe Puritanism: lots of rules, plenty of punishment for error and not much room for fun. This sort of Puritanism, according to Jesus, was all right; an austere life had been fine for John the Baptist, but it was not his own style. (Sanders, 1993, pp. 202-203)
Finally, the way perfection is modeled in the United States does pull on our history of severe Puritanism, even as it has transformed in our secular society under the guise of a non-religious perfectionism. So for the moment let us set aside our ideas of being perfect or achieving perfection in an individualistic sense and let us enter this world that Jesus is articulating for us in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew has brought us quickly to the mountain to hear these words from Jesus, so may we have ears to hear, eyes to see, minds whose imagination can dream this dream of the kingdom of heaven, and hearts to courageously strive together for this community of disciples.