‘You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This seemingly impossible demand, reaching far beyond the capabilities of our fallen nature, concluded a whole series of challenges made by Jesus as he outlined the nature of his kingdom. We should not underestimate the radical change of heart that Jesus sets before us, nor doubt the grace that he offers in achieving his vision of perfect justice and peace.
At first sight these demands seem to contradict a natural instincts for self-preservation. Not only is justifiable revenge excluded: we are exhorted to offer the other cheek to the person who strikes us. If someone would deprive us of our tunic, we are encouraged to offer them our cloak as well. We are asked to give and lend to all who ask, with no thought of recompense. It is not enough to love those who love us: we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
Many would dismiss such demands as madness, the unworkable idealism of a dreamer. Many of us, who wholeheartedly accept Jesus, will uncover within ourselves a surprisingly deep-rooted resistance to a genuine love for our enemies that goes beyond mere politeness. St Paul, who understood so well the hidden workings of our fallen nature, understood the radical demand that Jesus was making.
“Make no mistake about it: if any one of you thinks himself wise, in the ordinary sense of the word, then he must learn to be a fool before he can be wise. Why? Because the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.”
How, in Paul’s terms, can we learn to be fools that we might acquire the wisdom of Christ himself?
First of all we must understand that the so called common sense wisdom of our world is rooted in a broken past. Creation had been intended as a communion of love, and yet, from the very beginning, sin set brother against brother, father against son. A vicious circle of violence generating yet more violence led to a wisdom that demanded an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Like it or not, this instinct is deeply rooted in our fallen nature, and explains why we struggle so much with the extraordinary demands that Jesus makes on our generosity.
In what St Paul described as the Wisdom of the Cross, Christ offered the world a new way of thinking and being. Crucified as an innocent victim, Christ went far beyond what had been demanded in the Sermon on the Mount, giving not only the other cheek, but life itself. This was the foolishness that offered a broken humanity its redemption from the vicious circle in which injustice begets injustice and violence multiplies violence. Paul described such foolishness as the Wisdom of God.
Let us embrace that wisdom, allowing it to lead us afresh to the challenges set before us in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ has given himself completely for us, sinners as we are. Will he not enable us to forgive those who have offended us, love those who have rejected us? Will he not heal the petty grudges that can so easily take over our lives? Above all, will he not enable us so to forget ourselves, that, in him, we can reach out to all with generous hearts?