Several parts of this text can be difficult to understand. First of all, verses 33 through 37 can be challenging. They seem to forbid oaths altogether. Christ our Lord says, “Do not swear at all.” This seems at first hearing to be very cut and dried. He seems to say that no solemn promise is ever good.
Yet this would contradict other parts of Scripture. The Old Testament did not forbid oaths, and gave instructions for how to keep oaths that are made. Christ allowed Himself to be bound by an oath on the night of His trial before Caiaphas. Saint Paul also took an oath. So how can oaths be all bad?
There are several principles that may help clarify. Do not solemnly swear to do evil. Do not swear and then break your oath. Do not swear in order to cover up your sins or build yourself up. On the contrary, if you swear for the benefit of your neighbor (as for instance, wedding vows), then your are serving your neighbor in love. Then you are not making an oath for yourself, but for the welfare of someone who needs it.
Another case of this is when a minister of the Gospel swears to uphold the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Such an oath is pleasing because it reassures the congregation that the words preached in the pulpit will be pure.
Another occasion to allow oaths is when the government demands it. Here we are not swearing on our own, but at the instruction of someone in authority over us. An oath to give only true testimony in court is a good oath because the government demands it of us. We are to obey them, as it says in the Fourth Commandment, unless they command something against God.
The words of our text were not addressed to government, but to the disciples. They were individuals without earthly authority. Therefore we also, as individuals, should not take it upon ourselves to assume the right to demand oaths of others, nor to give oaths by our own authority, except in the case of showing love to the neighbor.
Secondly, in verses 38 through 42, Christ speaks about turning the other cheek. This may be confusing because it may seem to say that we should never resist an evil person at all under any circumstances.
Christ starts with the words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” from Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19. Is Christ throwing out holy Scripture? Of course not, since it is His own Word. But He is clarifying what is truly meant.
The original eye for an eye principle was for those administering justice. They were not to sentence a greater punishment than the damages inflicted. So if I wrecked your car, you would not be entitled to receive two cars in return, but one.
But for individuals, like the Twelve Disciples, and like most of us, we are not to take vengeance. We are not to administer justice by our own actions. In fact, as individuals we are not even to take our neighbor to court unless we are summoned.
An exception to this is again the law of love. Sometimes, our neighbor needs us to go to court to resist evil so that more evil is not done. Sometimes we need to stand up against those who use the law to their wicked advantage. But this is not to say that we are to stand up for our own advantage. As individuals, when it affects only us, we are to turn the other cheek and offer no resistance.
This also forbids us from defending ourselves. If someone comes to us, intent on harm, then we are not to defend ourselves as the world does. But this is only if we are the only one affected. If others are in harm’s way, we are surely to defend them. If we are parents, for example, we are not to simply allow an evil person to take our lives, knowing it would rob our children of a father or mother. In the same way, we would not simply allow someone to attack our children, but we would defend them with our lives, if need be. This is what God expects of the godly vocation of parent.
We can also see this principle in those who serve as police. Where they oppose evildoers, they are not simply to lay down their lives while they are attacked. No, they are lawfully to oppose lawbreakers and even inflict lethal damage if the situation calls for it. In this case, there is no turning the cheek, even if the policeman is a Christian.
Thirdly, we are to love enemies, as Christ says, beginning in verse 43. Here some of the same principles apply as I mentioned. A soldier does not do wrong if he slays an enemy combatant. Yet the soldier is not to hold vile hatred in his heart, nor use his position to oppress the innocent.
In the same way, a minister of the Gospel must rebuke error. Sometimes this is painful to hear. But loving the enemy does not mean ignoring sin, especially when a man is a teacher of the Word. If I ignore error, then I am doing wrong. When I rebuke, it may sound like enmity and hatred, but it is not, since I am speak the teachings of God. I should make sure, however, that I am not holding animosity in my heart.
But we all must pray for those who are enemies, Christ says. This may lead to the interesting situation where we ask God to bring our enemies to repentance and peace with us, but if not, let them be brought to justice. This is not really a contradiction, but only asking that God’s will be done. We hope that enemies can be brought to God’s mercy and forgiveness. Yet if not, we want peace and harmony to reign, which may mean imprisonment or death for them.
But we should never hold animosity for enemies in our hearts. Like God, we should wish them well and do well to them where we can. If they spew curses at us, as individuals we should speak blessings in return. This may make us seem backward and strange to those around us, but let them think that. We are set aside by God into a different people, a holy nation. We should act like what we are.
Then the most challenging words are at the end of the chapter: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How should we understand these words? Is He asking us to be absolutely sinless in every way? Or is there another way to read them?
The word translated “perfect” may also be translated, “complete”. In this sense, we are to have our life complete in a sense of maturity. We are not to be driven about by our emotions and desire for revenge and hatred. Instead, we are to be guided by God’s holy Word, and therefore by love. Although we still fail, we recognize that we have done wrong, and confess our sins.
Christ spoke similarly when He said, “Teach them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” With those words, Christ was not saying that every believer must reach a point of sinless perfection. But we are to keep the Scriptures, which means not only knowing them but also agreeing with them and putting them into practice.
Therefore our doctrine should be perfect, upon which we trust our lives and base our actions. “How can doctrine be perfect?” asks the cynical world. That seems an impossible task, and if it is limited to our ability, then it is indeed beyond our grasp. But holding to pure doctrine is not our work, but the work of God’s Word and Spirit. He teaches and He puts faith in our hearts. If we humbly listen at His feet and learn, then we will find maturity and perfection of faith, so long as we do not impose our own human notions upon the Word to make it say what it does not. God preserve us from that.
In the Word, God gives perfection. There is, after all, a certain kind of sinlessness that God expects of us. If we are to enter Paradise with its immortal delights, how perfect must we be? The answer is 100% perfection. The holy God will not tolerate unholiness in His presence. We cannot present ourselves to Him in the spotted garment of our wretched uncleanness and expect Him to ignore our sin.
But the Sermon on the Mount constantly shows us our wretchedness. Christ shows us how a superficial righteousness is not enough before God. Even secret hatred in the heart is forbidden.
We must go beyond what ordinary people. Do not simply love and greet your friends. Everybody does that. Love and greet your enemies. Do good to them and bless them. That is so hard that we have all failed at some time with it.
Give to those in need, not only what they ask, but even more. Be as generous as your means allow. This also means putting in extra work to make sure that a person really is in need and not simply living off the generosity of others in a state of laziness.
Or if someone asks you to go one mile, go two! But few of us even want to go one mile for a neighbor.
Seeing how far short we fall of perfection, we should never justify ourselves. We should not try to patch over our sins with oaths or other things, but freely admit that we sin. But if we were as perfect as we should be, then we would not sin at all.
How then will we sinners enter the Paradise of God? How will the holy Father tolerate our wretchedness in His presence? Simply by the merits of Christ, given by God’s grace. By believing in Christ’s works, not our own, we are accounted righteous. This righteousness is as perfect as Christ. In God’s eyes, that is what we are: absolutely perfect.
Let this comfort your conscience when your sins afflict it: You are covered by the holiness of your Savior. You are judged immaculately innocent. If your conscience protests that this is cheap grace, remind it that your perfection was bought at a very steep price.
You are perfect, by the declaration of the Father, on account of His Son. Amen.
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