OK, true confessions time. One of my favorite movies growing up was Mary Poppins. I loved that movie. The songs, the kids, the adventures, and the dancing cartoon penguins—what could be better?? I mean, when I was a little kid, and the characters JUMPED INTO A SIDEWALK CHALK DRAWING, I about lost my mind.
The story of a magical nanny coming to change the Banks family’s lives was just so incredible. The scenes right after Mary Poppins arrives are some of my favorites (besides the dancing penguins.They will always be my favorite!)—but the scenes right after Mary Poppins shows up are some of the best in the whole movie, because the kids start to learn that she is no ordinary nanny VERY quickly.
In one scene, Mary Poppins uses a tape measure to measure Jane and Michael. But rather than just telling their height like a normal tape measure, it measures their disposition and attitudes.
First, Mary uses the tape on Michael. She measures him from his head to his feet, then reads the tape: “Just as I thought. Extremely stubborn and suspicious!” Michael’s jaw drops. “I am not!” “See for yourself,” Mary says as she hands him the tape. Sure enough, where she had measured Michael were the words “Extremely stubborn and suspicious.” Jane giggles.
“Now you, Jane,” Mary says as she starts to measure her. Jane’s giggles immediately stop. Mary reads off of the tape for Jane: “Rather inclined to giggle, doesn’t put things away.” Michael laughs.
“How about you?” Michael asks Mary. “Very well,” Mary says. She has Jane hold the tape down as she measures herself. “Just as I expected,” Mary says. The camera zooms in to see what the tape says Mary reads it. “Mary Poppins: Practically perfect in every way.”
“Practically perfect in every way.” It’s this Mary Poppins quote that popped into my head when I read the end of our Bible reading from Matthew’s Gospel today. Jesus says in verse 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
There’s a difference between Mary Poppins and Jesus—well, ok, there are A LOT of differences between Mary Poppins and Jesus. We won’t go into those now! But there is a difference in what they say. Mary Poppins says she is PRACTICALLY perfect, and Jesus tells us to BE PERFECT. Practically perfect is just shy of being perfect. Jesus tells us to be perfect, period.
Now I don’t know about you, but that scares the heck out of me. How can Jesus tell us to be perfect?? No human being is perfect—except Jesus, of course! And he was God. What are we supposed to do? How can we be perfect???
Well, part of understanding what Jesus is saying is looking at the word translated as “perfect.” The New Testament in the Bible was originally written in Greek, and the word used here is telos. Telos means growing to maturity, or wholeness, or completeness. It really means to grow in our faith and become mature and whole and complete, to become more like God. That sounds a whole lot better than trying to being perfect, right??
OK, so if Jesus is telling us to grow to maturity and wholeness and completeness and become more like God, how do we do that? What does Jesus say about that process?
Let’s look at the beginning of our reading in Matthew, at what Jesus says. [Jesus said to the disciples]: 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
Wow, talk about words packing a punch—no pun intended! Let’s unpack this a little. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” That means that if you poke out someone’s eye, you get yours poked out to make it fair. Or if you knock someone’s tooth out, your own tooth gets knocked out.
There are a bunch of passages in the Old Testament that lay out how this works. In Exodus 21:23-25 for example, it says: 23 “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
And this makes sense to us, right? If someone hurts us, we hurt them back the same way. It sounds fair. It sounds like justice.
It also sounds like a vicious, violent cycle.
If every time we get hurt, we hurt someone back-- the cycle of hurt continues. They will continue to hurt us and others, and we will continue to hurt them and others-- and ourselves in the process. Doesn’t exactly sound like a great way to live for the long term.
Jesus calls us to a different way of living. Jesus tells us to not resist evildoers. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to give them our coat AND cloak, to go the extra mile.
Jesus isn’t telling us to be doormats. Jesus isn’t telling us to stay in abusive relationships, and be passive in the face of violence and pain at our expense.
He is giving us a new way to look at power.
If we follow the eye for an eye rule, power lies in how we can hurt each other. Power lies in retaliation and revenge. Power lies in us vs. them.
If we follow Jesus and turn the other cheek, give them more than they take from us, go the extra mile than the one they make us do —our power lies in showing how strong we are by NOT retaliating. Our power and strength is in our ability to rise above the hurt and violence and anger by showing them we will not return violence for violence. We fight back with peace and love and forgiveness.
Our power lies, not in revenge and pain, but in love and forgiveness. We meet evil with forgiveness. We meet hate with love. We break that violent cycle of hurt and pain and violence.
Jesus knows exactly how hard this is to do, because he lived it. When they beat him, mocked him, stripped him, tortured him, nailed him to the cross, he did not fight back. He rose above the violence. He rose above the hate and met the hate with love and forgiveness.
They saw it as Jesus being passive, but what they didn’t know was-- he was more powerful than they were. He met the awfulness with forgiveness and love. “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He asked God the Father to forgive them, even while they were watching him die on the cross. Now THAT is power. That is the power to forgive and to love, even in the face of evil.
Because Jesus lived this power, he knows what it feels like. He knows how hard it is to meet hate and evil with love and forgiveness. But because he did it, he knows how to help us do it. Only with Jesus’ help are we able to rise above our tendency to strike back when we meet violence and hate with our own violence and hate. Jesus shows us a new way, and is there to lead us in that new way of living.
Just look at Mahatma Ghandi, who was able to change the life of those from India who lived in South Africa. He carried the New Testament with him, read Jesus’ words in the Book of Matthew that we have been talking about, and was inspired. The Indians in South Africa were oppressed, beaten, killed—but because of Jesus words and Gandhi’s leadership, and with God’s help, they met that violence and hate with peaceful resistance and love. Ghandi said “’An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind.” He, with God, helped the people break that violent cycle and bring change through peace and forgiveness and love.
Closer to home, look at Martin Luther King, Jr. The fight for civil rights for Blacks in the 1960s was not a picnic. People marching for equal rights dealt with water hoses, dogs, tear gas, beatings, shootings, and death. Yet, they did not match violence and hate with violence and hate. They resisted peacefully and that was even more powerful. They were able to change our country with love and forgiveness and peace. As a Baptist pastor, King knew what Jesus taught. He summarized Jesus’ words about not meeting violence and hate with the same response: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Jesus is helping US change the world just like he helped and informed these huge social movements. Jesus helps us to meet the evil and hate we see in the world with love and forgiveness. We aren’t doing it alone—he is there, giving us the words to say, helping us love in the face of hate. He’s helping us love those who we consider our enemies, those who persecute us. He’s helping us break down those walls and barriers that divide us, helping us to see that hate and fear and separation are not God’s calling for us.
Sometimes it’s the small victories with love over hate that are most powerful. In the early days of his presidency, Calvin Coolidge woke up one morning in his hotel room to find a burglar going through his pockets. Coolidge spoke up, asking the burglar not to take his watch chain because it contained an engraved charm he wanted to keep. Coolidge then engaged the thief in quiet conversation and discovered he was a college student who had no money to pay his hotel bill or buy a ticket back to campus. Coolidge counted $32 out of his wallet -- which he had also persuaded the dazed young man to give back! -- declared it to be a loan, and advised the young man to leave the way he had come to avoid the Secret Service! (And yes, the loan was paid back.)
Coolidge was able to meet the man’s wrongdoing with love and forgiveness, with God’s help. Did it change the whole world in that instant? Not quite, but it changed that college student’s life, and it changed Coolidge’s life. It broke the cycle of hate. And both people were able to continue breaking that cycle of hate with others, with everyone else they came into contact with.
Imagine if we all lived in the way Jesus did and were open to his leading in responding to hate with love. Imagine how different our world would be! You may not think you’re doing much, but by living out Jesus’ words we are changing the world one person at a time—including ourselves. If everyone in our world listened to Jesus and tried to meet violence with love on a regular basis, our world would be, well, “practically perfect!” Our world would be telos—growing to maturity, complete, whole, becoming more like God.
So I invite you to listen for how Jesus is helping you to break the cycle of violence and hate. How is Jesus working in your own life to help you look hate and evil in the face and meet it with love and forgiveness? How is Jesus helping you rise above and use your power in peaceful resistance rather than pain? How is Jesus helping you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, to break down walls and barriers of hate and fear between people? How is Jesus using YOU to change the world and break the cycle of violence and hate? Amen?