Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Impossible Dream: A Sermon on Matt. 5:48 (For Sunday, February 23, 2014)



“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

When I was a boy, the song “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha moved me. It seemed to carry a nobility of purpose, a call to something higher than ordinary getting by. Don Quixote may be ridiculous, but he attains a certain grandeur as he assures us that
The World will be better for this/
That one man, scorned and covered with scars/
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage/
To reach the unreachable stars.
Beautiful, right? However, if you think about it, things don't work out too well for Don Quixote. His reach exceeds his grasp. He fails at his quest. The thing can’t be done in a fallen world.

We all know that the Gospels have what are widely called “hard sayings” in them, and today’s gospel gathers several of the hardest together.

Seriously, who can live up to these standards?

*Turn the other cheek?

*Give your cloak when someone tries to steal your coat?

*Give to every beggar on the streets?

And, most of all, love your enemies? Oh, and if that’s not enough, be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect.

Is this just another version of the impossible dream?

Later in the same Gospel, Jesus is asked by the rich young man—a young man who keeps the commandments, and loves his neighbor as himself—what he is lacking. Jesus’s answer is telling: “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me.

The young man doesn’t, of course. He slinks off, sadly, not able to rise to the call. The Impossible Dream is too much for him to bear.

So what are we to do with this teaching? The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says we should think of it not as the only legitimate rule for Christians in conflict situations, but as the “summit”; the earlier stages of biblical ethics “represent a permanent resource for believers when appropriate,” and that “it depends on the moral level of the opponent “which level of biblical ethics should be employed. These hard teachings represent “the summit” of ethics, and are reserved only for the most worthy adversaries. [1] Since earlier biblical ethics include smashing the heads of babies against the rocks, the New Jerome is right to conclude that under its interpretation, the believer has a pretty wide “range of options.”

But that’s pretty slick, isn’t it? And basically waters down Jesus’s teachings into the very “return the favor” ethics he explicitly rejects. If all he is saying is do good to those who deserve it—well, what’s so special about that?

An unbeliever, George Bernard Shaw, took it to the other extreme. He thought that in these teachings you could find a blueprint for a functioning just political order. As Shaw sees Jesus,
He lays no stress on baptism or vows, and preaches conduct incessantly. He advocates communism, the widening of the private family with its cramping ties into the great family of mankind under the fatherhood of God, the abandonment of revenge and punishment, the counteracting of evil by good instead of by a hostile evil, and an organic conception of society in which you are not an independent individual but a member of society, your neighbor being another member, and each of you members one of another, as two fingers on a hand, the obvious conclusion being that unless you love your neighbor as yourself and he reciprocates you will both be the worse for it. [2]
For Shaw, it’s an impossible dream if we leave it on an individual-by-individual basis. We can only succeed in realizing Jesus’s vision of a good society if we do it en masse, and with government redistributing income —which is to say, not at all, in America in 2014.

Is there no better way to come to terms with this difficult gospel?

Maybe. Maybe if we start by asking the question the other way around. Instead of trying to domesticate this gospel, and make it easier, let’s try admitting that it’s uncomfortable. In fact, it’s impossible. We can’t be perfect. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, we are told, in the same sentence as asking for our daily bread, to ask for forgiveness of our sins—immediately coupled with a promise in return that we will forgive others their sins against us. So what does that tell us?

That Jesus knows that we will need forgiveness daily; that we won’t measure up. But that we can believe that our mistakes, our errors, our moments of selfishness, of cruelty even—we will be forgiven, seventy times seven times. But that we have to do our part, and forgive those who hurt us.

And maybe, just maybe, Jesus is setting so very high a standard that we cannot meet it not to frustrate us, not to make us feel like spiritual failures, but to keep us right-sized. To remind us that we need God’s forgiveness, even though we are doing our very best to live up to Christ’s call to us.

If we can hold that in mind, then that makes forgiveness of others easier; I can concentrate on the beam in my own eye, and not the mote in my brothers, or sister’s.

Jesus reminds us of what true goodness is—perfection, like that of the Father. But then, when the rich young man approaches him, he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus brings him up short: “Why do you call me good? There is no one who is good but God.” Jesus will not claim for himself the perfection he urges us to strive for. There is a lesson for us here, isn’t there?

When the rich young man leaves sorrowing at the thought of losing his possessions, the disciples, stunned at the notion that the Kingdom may be inaccessible to the wealthy, the privileged, exclaim: Then who can be saved? Jesus answers, “With men, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Like Jesus, maybe we should not worry about being called good, and focus instead on doing the good works we are called to do. And not presume to think that those works make us good, since only God is good.

And maybe that is our answer. To do our part. Answer the call. Not be afraid of looking a little ridiculous. And to acknowledge that, in our own small way, we are trying to contribute to a dream that is not impossible, whatever Shaw or Cervantes might think, because we are not the dreamer—God is, and what is not possible for us alone is possible for Him.

So reach for that unreachable star. And fail. Fail again. Fail better.


Notes

[1] Benedict T. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in Fr. R. Brown, et al, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (New York: Prentice Hall, 1990) at 644.

[2] Shaw, “Preface to Androcles and the Lion,” in Bernard Shaw, Complete Plays With Prefaces, vol. 5 at 344 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963).

NB: Text from Matt. 19 does not exactly correspond to the NRSV link, because I was, in writing the sermon, working with a KJV, and modernized the language on the fly. I have left that ersatz update stand, because that is how I delivered the sermon.

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