Limits of Grace

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:38-48

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that was the law. Simple enough, you might say.

Candle In DarknessWhen we hear it, we hear a legal prescription—if they harm you, you harm them the same way. Do unto them as they did unto you. The ancient world heard a prohibition, a limit, changing revenge to justice—this far you may go, and no farther. If they steal your goat, you may not kill their families, burn their tents, and take their herds. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a goat for a goat. The law was a limit to vengeance and, strangely, a provision of grace. It took modern people, with all our advances, to listen to that law and hear words inciting violence.

Jesus goes beyond the limits—give them another eye for an eye, give them another tooth for a tooth. Another cheek, another garment, a second mile. Undermine violence with peace. Love your enemies.

Be perfect.

Then there is the way we hear that last word: τέλειός. Teleios. Perfect is the word used in most translations, and most of us hear a word meaning to be without imperfections, without error. To be fair, the word could have meant that, twenty centuries ago. More importantly, and with more use for us, it also meant mature, complete, fulfilled, or pertaining to the end.

Try the whole last verse again: Be mature, complete, fulfilled, therefore, as your father in heaven is mature, complete and fulfilled.

Does that sound different? We’re not aiming at modern perfection anymore, with all of those impossible expectations. We’re walking toward maturity, completeness, fulfillment, our end goal as a human being, something as ancient as life itself.

When the ones who are incomplete, immature, or unfulfilled come to beg, to demand, to inflict harm in the vain attempt to allay their own needs, Jesus is saying find the means to bring them along the path. Show them the way.

Go beyond the limits. Go to the very good end.