Sermon on the Mount – Week 3(b) – Matt. 5:39-6:4

This evening we will be discussing Matthew 5:38-6:4 of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In an indirect manner, there is no more influential verse in Western Christianity than Matthew 5:48: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The story of this verse begins in the late fourth century in Rome. During this time a British monk by the name of Pelagius came to Rome, and like Martin Luther 1000 years later, began to write against the moral laxity he found in the Imperial City. In 408, Alaric the Visigoth invaded Italy and eventually sacked Rome in 410. During this invasion, those with means escaped to Carthage in North Africa. The refugees included Pelagius and (soon-to-be St.) Augustine.

The central teaching of Pelagius was that Christians are called to be perfect as God himself is perfect. Jesus would not have given us this commandment of perfection if its achievement was beyond our ability. For Pelagius, God’s grace gave us the revelation of Christ and the ability to be perfect; however, our willingness and our ability to become perfect rested solely within ourselves. Grace was helpful, but not necessary. Based upon his own experience, Augustine realized that he was unable on his own to achieve perfection, but only through God’s grace could he even begin to believe and act in accordance with the Scriptures. It was in his writings Against Pelagius, that Augustine developed his signature doctrines based upon the centrality of Grace:

  • Original Sin (Our inherent congenital sinful nature is such that we can never achieve perfection on our own),
  • Double Predestination (our salvation is from God alone, therefore, God divinely ordains the saved and the reprobate from the beginning of time),
  • Irresistibility of Grace (the saved lack the ability to deny God’s grace in their lives).

These doctrines of grace of Augustine in opposition to Pelagius’ teaching of the perfectibility of man in Matt. 5:48 will become the main drivers of doctrine in the Western church through the Middle Ages and will become a cornerstone of the Reformation. Within the Anglican tradition, these Augustinian doctrines appear throughout the Thirty-Nine Articles and particularly in Articles IX through XVII. The Eastern Church, having never gone through the Pelagian controversy, never doctrinally resolved the mystery of grace and free will, and whether we humans have any role in our salvation.

The word “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 is the Greek term telos. This word gained currency in Aristotle’s Politics (written c. 350BC) and means purpose, or goal, or final end. The telos of an acorn is an oak tree. The telos of the blacksmith is the production of a sword, while the telos of a swordsman is to use the sword to incapacitate an enemy. In Politics, the question Aristotle seeks to answer is what is the telos of a human being. In order to reach our perfection, Aristotle says we must use reason (logos) to discover and understand right from wrong and how to behave ethically, only then can we reach our ultimate purpose.

In reading Matthew 5:48, the question for us is what is Jesus telling us our telos is? Just as an acorn is perfected when it grows into a mature oak, how do we obtain our perfection or chief end? For what purpose were we created and to what end do we necessarily aspire?

Dinner is at 6. The menu is chicken potato casserole. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (teleos).

Revelation 22:13

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