There Must Be No Limit To Your Goodness
Here at Emmanuel on Sunday mornings recently we have been following the lectionary which has been leading us through the Sermon on the Mount, and this presents a particular challenge to the preacher. Here is this sublime teaching that lies at the very heart of our faith, this radical reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law, expounded by Jesus on the mountain. But how do you preach it? At times there seems to be something of a random quality about the sermon as Jesus shifts from one subject to another. ‘You have heard it told… but I say unto you…’ is a recurring phrase, but Jesus seems to flit from one topic to the next, seemingly without any rhyme or reason. One minute he’s on about murder, then it’s adultery, then oath taking, then retaliation… and you never quite know where he’s going next. So do you as the preacher just trawl through each saying, methodically mining each nugget and risk a sermon that lacks cohesion? Or do you seek some theme or thread, some key that will unlock the sermon but which risks imposing a false coherence?
Well, at the risk of over-simplifying, I’m going with the latter. Inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s exposition of this passage in ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, I am going to focus in on v.47 of our reading and suggest that we find in there a hermeneutical key that unlocks not only the Sermon on the Mount, but the whole ministry of Jesus. The verse reads, ‘If you greet only your brothers, what is there extraordinary about that?’, and it’s particularly that word ‘extraordinary’ that I want to focus on. It is the Greek word ‘perisson’ which has at its root a sense of surplus, of abundance, of the excessive and the extravagant and the superfluous. And it seems here to be viewed by Jesus as a crucial quality of the Christian life. It is axiomatic to Jesus that we should exhibit something that goes far beyond the norm, far beyond what might be expected as reasonable and ‘enough’. Bonhoeffer writes about this verse, ‘What makes the Christian different from others is the peculiar, the perisson, the “extraordinary”, the “unusual”, that which is not “a matter of course”. This is the quality whereby the better righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. It is “the more”, the “beyond all that”.’ And if in a way the whole Sermon on the Mount is an attempt by Jesus to expound the better righteousness to which we are summoned by the drawing near of the kingdom of heaven, then this word perisson becomes central. Here in these verses, it’s the perisson that refuses to settle scores with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That version of justice represents the constraints of the law and it makes perfect sense and seems to be entirely proportionate and appropriate. But in God’s new realm, disclosed in Jesus, the boundaries of justice and the law are being pushed further and further into the uncharted territory of grace. There in that crazy, liberating grace-land, cheeks are turned and cloaks are pressed into oppressors’ hands on top of shirts and Roman soldiers find themselves unable to get rid of those they have ordered to carry their load. They just keep on carrying! And there, in the world of the perisson, enemies are loved and persecutors prayed for. And of course the grounding of all this, the basis for it, is the very nature of God who is extraordinary – a ‘perissonic’ God, to coin a term. As Jesus puts it, we can only be children of our heavenly Father, we can only bear a family resemblance, by behaving this way - for God is perissonic, causing the sun to rise on good and bad alike, sending rain on the innocent and the wicked. Here is a God who pushes far beyond the boundaries of justice and into the generous, anarchic zone of grace. So, concludes Jesus, ‘There must be no limit – no limit - to your goodness, as your heavenly father’s goodness knows no bounds.’ In short, you must be perissonic. Why? Because your God is perissonic.
Now, at this point I would suggest that we must leave the mountain and follow Jesus in his ministry, for there, again and again, we glimpse the perisson in all its uncontrolled excess. You spy it in a house in Bethany, where water is turned not only into wine, but wine that exceeds all expectations, delighting the palates of the connoisseurs. You meet it in stories of big catches of fish that leave nets splitting; and there it is again in the feast of loaves and fishes that comes from scraps but leaves baskets-full of leftovers. That’s the extraordinary, the surplus, in action. You glimpse it in the sight of a dignified Jewish father running down the road and embracing his stinking, dung-smeared, pig-defiled son who has done him wrong. And you hear it again in the crack and the laughter at the dinner tables of the outcasts, the law breakers, where one particular laugh stands out. You catch it again in the sight of a woman pouring expensive, treasured ointment over Jesus. And we see it in the events of Calvary and the extraordinary extremes to which God goes to rescue us. Above all, however, we see it in that garden with that tomb cracked open, because it simply could not hold the volatile surplus of life sealed within it. And from that tomb the perisson resounds throughout the New Testament.
Just listen again to our passage from Romans 5 – just listen for the perisson as Paul stretches language in order to try to articulate the sheer surplus of grace poured out in Jesus: ‘And so, since we have now been justified by Christ’s sacrificial death, we shall all the more certainly be saved through him from final retribution. For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, now that we have been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life….’ There’s ‘the more’ that Bonhoeffer referred to, the ‘all the more’, the ‘how much more’. Then again, further on, contrasting Christ with Adam, Paul writes, ‘But God’s act of grace is out of all proportion to Adam’s wrongdoing. For if the wrong doing of that one man brought death upon so many, its effect is vastly exceeded by the grace of God…’ And it goes on, ‘If, by the wrongdoing of one man, death established its reign though that one man, much more shall those who in far greater measure receive grace and the gift of righteousness live and reign through the one man, Jesus Christ…’ Here is the perisson that endlessly exceeds what might be considered enough, that relentlessly trumps whatever might be deemed appropriate, or adequate.
To move just briefly into philosophical realms, let me throw at you a quote from Oliver Davies, from his book ‘A Theology of Compassion’. In this context Davies writes of what he calls ‘the intrinsic tendency of existence to go beyond itself, to transgress its own limits in a creative surplus of existence’. Did you get that? ‘(T)he intrinsic tendency of existence to go beyond itself, to transgress its own limits in a creative surplus of existence’. And Davies maintains that it is the nature of creativity to tap into that ‘surplus of existence’. Well, I don’t know if existence has an intrinsic tendency to go beyond itself and transgress its own limits, but certainly there is that possibility and, where that possibility is realised, then it is surely evidence of the pull of grace, and where it happens something creative takes place and there is a heightening of human existence, a fullness of life. Davies gives examples of two women, Etty Hillesum and Edith Stein, both of whom perished in Auschwitz after lives of extraordinary self-sacrifice. In their lives and in others like them we see the embodiment of God’s wild, reckless grace that injects a surplus of life into a world tragically constrained and diminished by the power of death. This is the perisson that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount: where human existence is in jeopardy, where it can all too easily be demeaned, where wrong is being done or the oppressor stands before us, Jesus calls for a creative, imaginative response that heightens and ennobles human life.
People like Hillesum and Stein are dramatic examples and we could think of others – Martin Luther King springs to mind of course. But one of the joys of ministry comes from recognising the perisson in the lives of ordinary Christians in more mundane circumstances: people who defy the darkness with a burst of light. I greatly admire the Street Pastors initiative here in Cambridge. What on earth makes a group of people walk the streets of the city on Friday and Saturday nights, unpaid, from 10 pm until 4 am, picking up bottles, picking up inebriated people from the gutter, handing out water, giving flip-flops to women too drunk to stands on their high heels, praying in the street where they see violence brewing, paying taxis to take vulnerable people home? Why? Why would you do that? In Biblical terms, it’s the perisson, the extraordinary. In philosophical terms it’s where human life transgresses itself in a creative surplus of existence. And theologically it’s the incarnation of the scandalous, unrestrained grace of God.
And I tell you this. In a secular, sceptical world that is deeply suspicious of religion, and that is well-stocked with horror stories to justify that suspicion, our credibility depends upon a discovery of the perisson. It must become not just the occasional feature of exceptional lives but the very hall-mark of God’s people. It is the hermeneutical key not just to the Sermon on the Mount or of Romans 5 but to the whole life of discipleship. ‘There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.’ Amen.