I had a rugby coach at school who was fond of saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”
He was the kind of coach who asked more of us, in training and on the paddock. It was not sufficient to say we had done passing drills, or tackling practice; had we done it correctly? Were we better as a result? When we played on the weekend, would we be able to replicate what we had trained?
Perhaps the key to his coaching – for all of us schoolkids – was that he had played for the Wallabies, so it was more than theory. He had seen this stuff work.
Many of us remember the teacher, the parent, the mentor, who asked (even demanded) more of us, whether it was at Girl Guides, or in our home, or learning the clarinet. It was often difficult, sometimes unpleasant, but when we found our courage and our way, we saw where we were being encouraged to go.
Our coach required more of us because he saw more in us.
The wonder of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins to fade when Jesus moves from blessing to rigour. Almost everyone we know remembers one, or more, of the blessings, but how many of us willingly remember – and recite – about calling people fools, or the self-imposed discipline of a promise made?
I can honestly say that I have never murdered anyone, and I would expect most of my friends can say the same. But anger and insult? More than that, how often have I deliberately put aside the things which “needed to be done” and found my way back to someone to ask their forgiveness and be reconciled?
My bible’s editors placed a series of headings in this part of Jesus’ sermon, “concerning anger”, “concerning adultery”, “concerning divorce”, as if this is about a series of structured laws, rather than the integrity of our character and the promises we make. Most relationships are wonderful, difficult, fulfilling, awkward and occasionally, boring. How we live together as friends, family, partners and spouses is more than a series of behaviours; it’s our ability to care, serve and forgive – and ask forgiveness – which is the measure of who we are together.
Jesus invites all of his disciples, throughout history, to more. It’s not simply about the power (failure) of a man to cast aside his wife when his gaze is drawn elsewhere, it’s about remembering the covenant made of love and commitment – and reconciliation. Much of Jesus’ language in this small section is focused upon men, but we can draw a wider net in which to gather all of us.
It is insufficient to say blandly, “According to the Law, I have not sinned”. Jesus’ fulfilment of that Law calls us to more; to living creatively, to honouring our covenants, to restoring and renewing relationships, to a perfect practice.
This is hard, it requires discipline. We need each other. And we need the hope of God’s promise, the grace of Jesus’ example and the Spirit’s company for each step.