The Arban’s Complete Conservatory Guide for Trumpet is a pedagogical method for students of trumpet and cornet. The original edition was published by Jean-Baptiste Arban in 1864 and it has never been out of print. It is a trumpet player’s bible. It contains hundreds of exercises, ranging from very simple to incredibly complex. At the end of the book there are seven variations on The Carnival of Venice. Any trumpet player who learned to play the instrument using the Arban Method eventually finds themselves at the back of this tome, trying to navigate through each variation. The first is easy, the second is fun, the third enjoyable but then the real players are separated from the rest. I came to two conclusions. First, I would never be able to play anything beyond variation number three and second, there was no one who could flawlessly play all seven.
A few years ago I picked up an album by Jazz great Wynton Marsalis in which he covered many of the classical trumpet standards. Carnival of Venice was among them. The recording was magnificent, but not without flaws. I shared it with a friend who said, “If you want to hear the real deal, listen to Maurice Andre.” I took his advice and became a convert. I had never heard the trumpet played with such absolute perfection.
Why did I share this story? When one is brave enough to read the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the text we read this morning, I think it is best to remember the tenacity and virtuoso of folks like Maurice Andre. I have to remind myself that although the impossible might seem beyond my reach that does not make it unattainable. How else can one take seriously words like, “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.” Or “If someone forces you to go one mile, go the second one.” Or the hardest of all, “You have been told to love your neighbor and hate your enemies. I tell you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This calls not only for perfection, but for an endless effort correcting our imperfections, in the hopes of reaching a goal most folks would consider bizarre.
Remember when your child came home from school with a torn shirt and a bloodied nose. You immediately ask what happened. Your son explained he got into an argument with his former best friend. One thing lead to another and the ex-friend threw a punch. Your response was, “What did you do next?”
Your bloodied child looked up through his tears and says, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek. That is exactly what I did and Eddie hit me again.”
How do you respond? Did you congratulate your child for his principles? Did you grit your teeth and say something innocuous like, “Well let’s get you cleaned up.” Did you call out Eddie’s dad? Did you visit the minister and ask what kind of nonsense is being taught in Sunday School? Regardless of the response, aren’t we constantly overwhelmed by the impossible demands of Jesus when his words stand over against the harsh and ever changing realities of life?
There are a number of ways folks have approach this text. The first and the easiest is to just ignore it. We are often selective in the biblical passages we claim to be sacred. Many of the laws and customs of the Bible, such as the role of women or the keeping of slaves are no longer relevant. Who can obey all the commandments? If we are going to be selective, this seems like a great place to start.
A second approach is to try to understand this text within the whole biblical message. While Jesus said to turn the other cheek in Matthew, there are no parallel passages in the other gospels. Perhaps the writer of Mathew was doing some creative editing. Besides, the Book of Leviticus clearly justifies the legitimacy of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Third, maybe Jesus is referring to the way things will be when we get to heaven. Perhaps Jesus is describing a place in the future where a hand will never be lifted in anger. As we pray for that day, we somehow convince ourselves that Jesus was definitely not speaking about what happens to us today.
Fourth, maybe Jesus didn’t mean to be taken literally. Maybe he was speaking in the abstract. Jesus has been known to use poetic language to make a point. Perhaps Jesus was saying in a perfect world this is the way life should be, but life isn’t perfect. Besides, isn’t that why Jesus came, to be a sacrifice for our imperfections?
Finally, some folks will argue the gospel of Matthew was written in a time that fully did not understand the complexities of the 21st century. In Jesus time Pax Romana kept the peace and it was suicidal to lift a hand against the Roman Empire. We live in a democracy where people have the right of free expression. Sometimes keeping that privilege can get a bit messy. Perhaps The Sermon on the Mount can only be understood within its own historical setting.
All of these are worn out and over used responses to the complexities of the Sermon on the Mount. It is nice to have them in our back pocket should the text come up in a Sunday School Class. The problem is, none of the above deal adequately with verse 48, “Be perfect, even as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Our temptation is to homogenize the hard sayings of Jesus into a mushy, domesticated faith that resembles a Hallmark Card. Jesus will have none of it. The commandment is to love our neighbors and our enemies as we love ourselves. The rational for this is, as disciples of Christ, we are called to imitate God, who blesses both the righteous and unrighteous. Why are we called to do this? Because, as disciples, God demands that our behavior should be different from everyone else. Imitating God is not just an option. It is the very goal of discipleship.
The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus’ commentary on the Holiness Codes of the Old Testament. In our text this morning Jesus was clearly speaking about Leviticus 19 which expands on the cultic requirements and ethical obligations of the Ten Commandments. You shall not murder; You shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud another; you shall not render unjust judgment; you shall not take vengeance; you shall love your neighbor. Why were the people of Israel expected to act in this way? The answer is found in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.”
When Jesus calls for perfection, this must be taken with the utmost seriousness but also with the understanding that any attempt to attain literal perfection is beyond possibility. In Matthew’s Greek world, perfection was viewed as impossible because of the ambiguities and flaws of creation itself. Plato claimed in order to become perfect one would have been perfect from the beginning. He reasoned perfection assumes always being without flaws. Since we are all flawed, human perfection cannot be achieved.
But in Jesus’ Hebrew world, perfection is understood within the context of what one can become. Therefore despite the imperfect nature of creation we are called to aspire to wholeness within that same creation. We are called to be holy.
Jesus says to us, “You are human, created in the image of the God. When you clench your fist, you become less than human. Work hard on the traits God implanted in your soul from birth. Learn how to love as God continues to love you.”
Those are wonderful words, but they are difficult to remember when our child’s nose is bloodied, or a co-workers has started a vicious rumor, or even when someone steals our parking place. We live in a world filled with tension and it is our human nature to react. Yet, Jesus calls on us to act in a way that just doesn’t seem natural. What are we suppose to do?
I’m smart enough to know that nothing said from this pulpit is going to get any of you to change a lifetime of practiced retribution. Truthfully, I struggle with this just as much as you. So I am going to ask you to do something different. I want you to go home, turn on your computer, and google Maurice Andre playing Carnival of Venice. Listen to it, and then ask yourself, “Did he do play it that way the first time?”
Of course not. He practiced until he got it right. Go and do likewise. Amen.