So we’ve been reading and studying different bits and pieces of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The part we’re studying today is the conclusion of the chapter. After laying out a vision of the Kingdom of God with the beatitudes and reframing of the 10 Commandments to demonstrate he wasn’t doing new, he concludes this part by a curious ending. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I think that the writer of Matthew intended something akin to a “mic drop” moment…. ‘nuff said, there’s nothing that can top this.
For me, the call to be perfect, like God is perfect is not only daunting, its off putting. “I can’t do THAT. Not even close.”
Who can blame anyone for that kind of response.
A quick google search on “perfect” returned a result that was almost entirely one thing: perfect body image. Think about how pervasive that topic is. So much so, that I thought it was a joke when I heard that Barbie was featured in Sports Illustrated. What we’ve got this image of perfect that is so warped that what would only be seen as satire is now reality.
Maybe body image isn’t a place you can connect. Maybe you live out this need to be perfect with an expectation: such as your house looking like it belongs in the pages of architectural digest or not being satisfied with your kid getting a 95 on a test but wanting the “100”. We say we want the best for our child in hoping like that but educators say the effect is otherwise.
Have y’all seen Frozen, yet? The older daughter has this gift of being able to create snow and ice. It delights her sister. But because it is different, because there’s the possibility it could cause harm, her parents teach her to hide her abilities, so as to appear perfect, normal. I won’t spoil the movie, but that lesson internalized and generalized.
Maybe we borrow from the puritans a definition of perfection where perfection is not attainment of ideal in some status but perfect is a moral category, where abstaining from anything that might be enjoyable or fun combined with an over-emphasis on duty and work made for a combination that did a lot but has proven to have it down side, too.
Maybe there’s another another to read the “be perfect” admonition.
Our very own Rex Matthews explored this very thing in one of the lectures he did in Brazil last May. Looking at texts and translations, both ancient and modern he proposes that maybe our other uses of the word “perfect” to mean without blemish or fault… like the perfect diamond… gets in the way of how we mean perfect here.
Perfection is not a finished-product state,without any faults. Perfection is a process. Growth is implied, moving towards a goal. John Wesley, himself, said that it was plausible that someone, probably as they were nearing death, could achieve as state that was near perfection, if not perfection itself. But he said that this was rare, if ever. And this perfection was not a perfect, without sin. It was perfect as in have perfections and intentions and perfect love.
I think another clue for us thinking about perfection being a process of growing in faith, growing in service to Jesus comes from what comes next in the Gospel of Matthew. Right after this “be perfect” are instructions on spiritual disciplines: how to pray, how fast, how to tithe, how to serve.
Its almost as if he’s saying, “you want to grow in faith, you want to join in? here’s how.”
That same invitation applies for us.
The way I was trained, formed, was to think about it this way: perfection is more of a process and less about a goal. In this process of perfection, our desires and intentions become more and more closely aligned with Gods desires and intentions as we participate in the life faith.
So our invitation to a process and not a goal has several knock-on effects, the first of which is that we can be as gracious with ourselves as we are with others. This is not an invitation to being a slacker for Jesus—but we do need to pay attention to rest, sabbath, and retreat.
There’s also the implication of not letting perfect being the enemy of the good. So many times, especially in church (and I’m particularly good… or bad, as it were, at this one which makes sense since this seems to be something that liberal congregations seem to have a penchant for, as well). We talk it out, leave it to discern, only to talk some more. We wait for the perfect plan with full funding and a perfectly laid out set of goals, expectations, and measurable outcomes that we wind up planning, and planning, and planning. And one day we look up only to realize that there’s lots of plans but a lot of good intentions.
A model for how to go about a new ministry with a little grace is our food pantry. Initially, we planned on having a small number served… I think 30 households. The plan was also to meet short-term needs. But need before us, is something different with on-going needs and a regularly served, community. We have been malleable, responsive to the need. And I appreciate that hard effort.
We also need to be a little patient with others until they are ready to receive the invitation to lay down idols of perfection. Some have more traditional notions of perfection deeply ingrained in their being. This is something folks can’t simply turn off or change. It takes time to believe and live out being more gracious, more forgiving to not only others but to ones self.
And we can look at ourselves, too.
In Frozen, Anna… one of the sisters… is told that an act of true love is needed. True to Disney Princess script, everyone thinks that the act is kissing her prince, falling in love and living happily ever after… everything tied up with a pretty bow, story book ending. But that’s not how the story goes. The act of true love that happens in the story is one that is not only sacrificial, but it is also just another part of the story.. though an important part.
If the loving, gracious actions that we live out can be just part of the journey that is that towards God and with each other, then that would be nothing less than… well, perfect.