... As Your Heavenly Father Is

Two weeks ago, we had the beginning of the section on law in Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount." Jesus declared that Torah and the prophets would endure to the end of all things, with every detail intact. He declared that what Torah and the prophets entail, what God commands through them, even in its smallest detail, constitutes the basis for one's participation in God's rule over the heavens. And last week, Matthew's Jesus went on to show what it means to fulfill these injunctions—rather than to engage in strategies of mitigation, relaxing the law here and there to make it a better fit to the people.

And what does it mean? Reconciliation with those you have wronged; respect for women as equals; the refusal to objectify and subject the people around you to your own will; the protection of others from the working out of your own sinful desires, at whatever cost to yourself; and the requisite humility to only promise what it lies within your power to do. This is the law, and the prophets. These are the demands of the justice of God's rule over the heavens. You could look at them as working out the two greater commands: to love God, and to love the neighbor as equal with yourself before God.

Now, this week, Jesus continues the theme. In fact, this week it gets worse! Don't look for compensation for wrong done to you; turn it into good done for your neighbor. Outdo your enemies in generosity. Give them, freely, more than they would take from you. Love and pray for even your enemies, because they are your neighbors. Be like God in this way. There is nothing more demanding. "Live a just life, as God is just."

And who could doubt from this that God wills good to every creature—and that God is in fact good to every creature, regardless of their belonging to this or that group? Regardless, even, of their actions? These commandments are not the prerequisites of God's grace, by any means! They are not instructions on how to merit salvation. That is never what "heaven" means in this context. Heaven is that realm of creation that is already properly subordinate to God, whose creatures already cooperate in doing God's will.

It is quite obviously another matter, here on earth. And so these commandments are instructions on how to participate fully in God's actions in the world. Torah and the prophets do not stand across the path that leads to God's grace. There is nothing of merit here. God's grace is already given, and given abundantly. And beyond that, as grace on top of grace, God is merciful and patient with us as we struggle to live up to that grace. God already is exactly the way God would have us be! These commandments are the shape of a way of life for a people already aware that God is so gracious to them. The emulation of God is the shape of our gratitude. And that shape is what God calls "justice."

The Verdict on the Unjust

God, who is abundantly gracious to us, demands that in our gratitude we be just. Small wonder that the lectionary matched last week's Matthew text on how to be just with Deuteronomy 30, wrapping up the consequences of justice and injustice for the people of God's choosing. The people are given the choice between "life and prosperity" and "death and adversity." Of course, this choice doesn't stand on its own. This choice is not a matter of how to earn God's grace. This choice is a matter of gratitude for grace already received in abundance—and also of the real-world consequences of the ingratitude that leads to injustice.

God has just delivered the people from captivity in Egypt, and brought them to the land flowing with milk and honey—twice. Once, forty years ago, when they refused it, and again, now, after their wandering in the desert. These words in Deuteronomy are among Moses' last words. But Moses does not actually speak these words to the people in the desert, who are about to inherit the land. He speaks them to a much later people, as this story is told for the descendants of this people and their choice of right or wrong. Moses speaks these words to a people in exile, a people for whom this die has already been cast, and for whom the curses have come true. A people that has known death and adversity. A people that lost the land flowing with milk and honey due to their own indiscretions and injustices. A people that failed.

There is a reason why, over and over again, our scriptures tell us the story of the Fall. Even that story in Genesis is only an image of this reality, a story about how we got to be in the bad situation that faces us today. An attempt to write it into the fabric of reality from the beginning, when it seems so often to be basic to the structure of our universe. Scripture tells us stories, over and over again, of how we did not choose to live a just life before God, and what happened next. Stories, over and over again, of how we are paying the price for our failures. Stories that explain the present in terms of the past; stories in which immoral choices got us into this mess, and moral choices can get us out. This, too, is the law and the prophets. And it is also Matthew, and Luke, and Mark.

There is great explanatory power in blaming the present situation on mistakes of the past, and exploring how thoroughly wrong everything went along the path that led up to the place we are today. This generation can be freed from the mistakes of those who came before them—freed to do right, freed to not make the same mistakes. Freed, of course, to make new mistakes. The authors of scripture really do believe there is a way out, and that they can find it. That there is a way back to being right with God, and that if they can only escape the failures of their past, they can stand in that place again.

They're right, of course—and also completely and utterly wrong. In their condemnations of past generations, these stories bequeath to the present generation only the right to be condemned for their own failures. In rewriting every story, in history and prehistory alike, into the image of the Babylonian Exile, the authors of these scriptures have unwittingly left us absolutely no hope in law. In order to craft for themselves a hope that the next time would be better, they have told us, quite in spite of themselves, that every time it is the same. If there is a way out, it is not this way. This way, even in the gospels, only leads back around to the same point, over and over again. Rome lays siege to Jerusalem, the Temple is razed to the ground, and we attempt to live out the same story: it happened because we failed. But next time, we can do it right. Right?

Only a Way Through

If what we're looking for is a way to escape the consequences of our own injustices, we will not find such a way out in scripture. The best scripture has to offer you, from that standpoint, is the opportunity to do ethics on your own terms. To find your own walk before God, and to attempt to live justly within it. And if the standards of that justice are utterly uncompromising, at least they're the same for everyone. Nobody else has a way out, either.

Even the law is not a way out. There is no way of life that, if followed absolutely to the letter, will make you just in God's sight. Law regulates injustice, but it does not create justice. The absolute best possible outcome of legal obedience, in the best possible case, is a life that is not unjust in certain ways. Which is worth striving for, certainly. But God's rule over the heavens is not merely not unjust. To participate in that, you need to be vastly more just than even the most assiduous legal scholar.

Fortunately, the eternal return of the demands of the law is not the only story scripture tells us. If there is no way out, no escape from the consequences of our failures, and there is no way back, no way to stand before that original choice and do right, God still provides a way through. And, in the end, all of the stories in scripture that talk about us only exist to point to this story about God. The God who redeems. The God who, choosing to use Noah, sets about preserving creation from its failures. The God who, choosing to use Abraham, sets about undoing the Fall of creation into sin and disunity. The God who, choosing to use Jacob, sets about establishing the foundations of the first microcosm of the kingdom of God on earth. The God who, choosing to use Moses, sets about rescuing them from captivity in Egypt. The God whose redemption is the only real hope of the people, a people who really are very much as they are in the stories.

These are the first stories in the canon, not because they happened first, but because this is the only kind of a God Israel and Judah can trust. And so they tell these stories on themselves, stories of their failures and stories of God's redemption, to help that trust along. Because at every point, in spite of everything we get up to, all of our scheming for ends both right and wrong, it is God and God alone who is our survival. It is God, and God alone, who provides for us a way through the trials of a world that has no reason to seek our good. It is God, and God alone, who promises what lies entirely outside of our power: life and blessing, even in the midst of death and adversity. God has chosen life, that we may live.

The Ultimate Reality

Mercy is the ultimate reality here. Mercy, though it is often hidden under the shadows cast by its opposite. And if the laws Jesus interprets so thoroughly in Matthew are that much more convicting because he makes them into impossible absolutes, we need to sit back and push away from the text for as long as it takes for us to stop trying to obey them, or enforce them, or fight them, or turn them into things we could actually accomplish.

We so often take Matthew's language about the "kingdom of heaven" and turn it into something that refers to human community. But the kingdom of the heavens, and God's rule over it, are parabolic in every sense that the other things we call parables in Matthew are. It is always and everywhere a mistake to assume that the parable declares that God's reality is just like ours in these ways. The parable exists to subvert the way we look at reality, the way we think things are and therefore should largely be. The parable is a genre of critique!

We look at the word "kingdom" and think we know what it means, and how kingdoms work, and we even have notions about how they should justly work, being the kinds of things they are. But the parable doesn't say that God's rule over whole realms of creation fits into this genre, that God is a king whose rule we could judge by this or that set of sociological criteria. The parable says, every time, that God's rule over creation is so fundamentally different from how we think of earthly rule that it can only be accommodated by twisting our reality, and breaking it, and leaving it utterly in question.

Matthew speaks of God's rule over the heavens, and it is the assertion of the gospel that this reign of God has come near to us on earth in the person of Jesus. Matthew speaks of the coming in power of the one who by right rules over all things in heaven and on earth. And now we are ready to look at these passages from the Sermon on the Mount again, but not as they apply prescriptively to us. If we are to be just as God is just, then we are to look at these passages from the gospel as they apply descriptively to God!

Be as God Is

We too often focus on the word "perfect" when Matthew's Jesus tells us to "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." We want to apply some objective standard of perfection, just as we want to apply some objective standard of justice. But that is to miss the point. That is to make God conform to the world, and not vice versa.

The real value here, as it has always been for the people of God, is in being as God is. Not in the serpent-in-the-garden sense of "You will be like God," in which we attempt to stand next to and even replace God in the determining of good and evil, right and wrong. No, being properly like God is always a matter of responding and corresponding to God. God is as God is, and seeing that, we are called to be as God already is. God determines us, and we determine ourselves best when we do so in imitation of God, in doing the kinds of things God does.

What is God like, then? Matthew's Jesus tells us that God sends the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and unjust alike. That God is not merely partial to those who like him, but is even partial to those who do not like him. That God's impartiality is not a matter of total disaffection, but of total affection.

Children ought to be like their parents, and God loves even those who hate and persecute God. God does not turn away from those in need, and whatever they ask, God gives more. Even when they seek to take from God what they want, God turns around and gives them freely more than they were looking for. When rebuffed and abused, God does not withdraw or strike back, but continues to hold out grace and mercy to them.

God does not "give as good as he gets," nor does God engage in any kind of disproportionate response to wrong. "Quid pro quo" is not God's way. "Tit for tat" is not how God keeps accounts. Like divorce, the "eye for an eye" statute was made to loosen the law for us, because the law denies vengeance altogether. If we take vengeance for ourselves, the most we are allowed by the law—not by God!—is the strict equivalent to the offense given. But God does not avenge. While actions do have consequences in the world, God is always and primarily engaged in the giving of grace and mercy. We must learn to distinguish between the occasions of God's justice in punishment of the unjust, and the much larger category of the vengeance we think is natural in the world.

God is the God who promises what it is in God's own power to do, and is faithful then to do it. And all things are in God's power, whether in heaven or on earth. God is faithful in ways we are never capable of being. We simply don't have the power—much as we might like to think we do! God does not want, God does not lack, God is not seeking anything we could give. When God brings suit against us, it is not for anything we have or can do for God.

When God brings suit against God's people it is because, having been given such grace and mercy, the people have not been just with it as God is just. God gives all things, and has a right to give them because God made all that is—and in return God demands only that we who trust God be as God is. Gracious. Merciful. Concerned for those who lack. Concerned for those who suffer. Equitable. Impartial in giving, and ridiculously generous. Not self-concerned.

And if we can get past the self-obsession that sees us focus on the demands this makes as law, and the pursuit of obedience to the letter rather than the Spirit, we will see that this is in fact good news. That God is this way, at all times, to us—no matter how we are toward God. This is how God rules the heavens, and it is how God rules the earth as well.

That this is not how we rule the earth says much about the reality of sin. It says much about how damaged we have become—because the world is so often divided into those who have the power to do this, who must do it, and who so often refuse to be just as God is just; and also those from whom all capacity for this has been taken, those who suffer injustice, those from whom we too often make these demands as though they had the power, as though they were the sinners, and were not victims instead of our sin.

It is bad news for us that we are like this. But it is immeasurably good news for everyone that God is just in the ways God, and often God alone, defines justice. And if the reality of faith has any power, it is that trusting in God we can see that we have become free with respect to our sin, free to make amends, free to turn and seek to repair the breaches between ourselves and our neighbors. In Christ we have all been purchased by God, bought by the one who had no need to buy us, redeemed from our own self-possession. This, too, is God's justice in action. This is God freeing us from the tyranny of ourselves, and this is God freeing our neighbors from the tyranny we have imposed upon them. We get to do better. We are free to do better.

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