In Luke 6:17-36, Jesus preaches the law with all of its force. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” he says. In Matthew, the line at this point in the sermon says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Since the Lord taught on the law many times, both are correct. Be merciful. Be holy. Not just pretty good or basically decent. Holy in the way the Lord your God is holy. Be perfect. Not simply trying hard, not just “making good progress.” Perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. These are the King’s standards. From the beginning, God created humanity to image forth his likeness perfectly. Anything else would be to “miss the mark” or, simply, sin.
Since our first parents fall in Eden, the obligation to be perfect and perfectly merciful remains binding. It has been neither abrogated nor downgraded. It is this standard from Eden, reiterated by Moses and confirmed by Jesus (e.g., Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-40), which condemns Jew and Gentile alike. Humans were to have “dominion,” that is, be kingly and reign on Earth as our Father does in heaven. We were meant to mirror (i.e., image) God’s kingship without flaw or fault. Consequently, as Luther noted, there can be no venial sins. All sins are mortal because each and every sin constitutes a thought, word, or deed of high treason against the world’s rightful sovereign.
So Luke and Matthew posit a standard of perfection. The law, in the mouth of Jesus, demands perfection. This is an impossible standard, a standard that only condemns. There is no wiggle room.
To be sure, there seems to be something attainable. Jesus admonishes, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’” This is what is called the ‘law of retribution.’ It wasn’t—as some still suppose—something that entitled you to take your pound of flesh when wronged. No, it set a limit on retaliation. You could not exact more than was taken from you: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Retaliation could not become revenge. You were not entitled to escalate a conflict. You were to approximate mercy. All of which is well and good.
But then Jesus takes our understanding to an astonishingly new level. Don’t even take what you’re entitled to, he says. Don’t even resist one who is evil. If someone slaps you on one cheek—which was a strong insult in Jesus’ day—offer him the other one as well. If someone tries to sue the shirt off your back, give him your coat, too. Give to beggar and borrower alike. And be merciful, just as your Father is merciful; be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Impossible, yet required. This is the standard, and it has always been the standard: divine perfection. At the same time, there is nothing human beings lack more. We need perfection. And yet who can attain it? Let alone deliver it to sinful, needy humanity?
What hope can there be in the face of the law, the standard for which is impossible? That is, who has been merciful to their enemies when being slapped in the face? Put differently, who is capable of pardoning those who stand justly condemned? Indeed, who can attain perfection, even under the harshest of conditions, and so in every way do that which is pleasing to the Father?
Christ Jesus can and did.
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).
Perfect obedience. Perfect atonement. All the perfection we need, Jesus attained.
Jesus Christ imaged forth the perfect likeness of the Father, and he did so as our representative (because he is Christ, the King of all nations) so that his perfection could be accounted to us and, at the same time, bear our sin and offer up himself as a blood sacrifice to make atonement for our treasons. Only Jesus could say, “I always do the things that are pleasing to [the Father]” (John 8:29). Always, even unto death upon a cross: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Always obedient. Always perfect. All the righteousness we need freely given. And not merely obedient in the positive (active) sense, but doing so under the most extreme conditions imaginable: “the Lamb of God bearing, for the taking away, the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “Him who knew no sin [God] made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Perfect obedience. Perfect atonement. All the perfection we need, Jesus attained.
Jesus attained all, even down to the particulars of Luke 6:17-30.
We fail to turn the other cheek to smiters, but Jesus offered his cheek to those who abused him; he offered his back to those who whipped him. He carried his cross down the lonely road of sorrows. He walked the extra mile—the Via Dolorosa—with his enemies. He gave his tunic to those who gambled for it. He took no revenge on those who falsely accused him. Instead, he prayed for them. “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” He gave to those who begged of him. And he still does. He is merciful as his Father is merciful. He is perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect.
In Jesus, the most totalizing summary of the law becomes the gospel of the one made perfect through obedience.