“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
When I began to prepare this sermon earlier this week, I was having window blinds installed. The installer had previously examined the required width. Despite his accuracy, somehow the blinds would only close half way down. He solved this problem when he discovered he’d been overly zealous to ensure his measurements were accurate. His measurements for the window blinds were so precise they failed to account for the fact that the walls were not square. Consequently, a slight curvature interfered with the blinds ability to drop more than half way. This got me thinking. It’s all very good and often necessary that we seek perfection, but we also have to take into account that we live in a variable world in which things are not necessarily how they appear at first sight.
The demand to strive for perfection is as old as history. The ancient Greeks struggled with the gap between what should be and what is. The Greek philosopher Plato solved the problem by deciding that our world is a mere shadow of the perfect. He proposed that every object is given its being by a perfect “form” in heaven. Some 2300 years later, this idea still powerfully influences Western societies.
The Hebrew idea of perfection, on the other hand, centred around the Law. It’s our task, said the Jewish people, to obey the letter of the Law of Moses or suffer the consequences of divine punishment. Yearning for perfection, partly stimulated by Plato’s philosophy, continued into the early Church. Augustine of Hippo, for example, taught that we are all corrupt and infected with sin, and only Jesus can rescue and bring us to perfection.
The 4th century desert hermits, of whom Antony is the best-known example, retreated into the desert to live alone. They sought to gain perfection by denying themselves the ordinary things of life. The so-called monastic “Counsels of Perfection” emerged in the fourteenth century for those who desired lives consecrated to perfection by taking vows of chastity, poverty (regarded as perfect charity) and obedience. The injunction “Be perfect!” became a common theme in child rearing. When children continue to put this injunction into practice as adults, the results can be traumatic and can result in ruined health and broken relationships.
We are bombarded from every direction with advertising that implies we are imperfect by simply being ourselves. Instead of being clones of a particular model, we can celebrate our uniqueness by accepting and enhancing our various body types and shapes and sizes.
How do we measure success and happiness and what is the perfect life? As our burial office states, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
All of this seems somewhat complicated by the apparent words of Jesus “You must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect!” The divine expectation is that we be complete in achieving our potential and are living the life of grace. In the words of the second century theologian Ireneus “The glory of God is man fully alive!” “To be complete” or “to be fulfilled” is the true meaning of original Greek word telos, even though it is so often translated as “perfect”. Our completeness or maturity isn’t the same thing as perfection. Again and again, in words and deed, Jesus proclaimed our full and unconditional acceptance to God. He anticipates our perfection will be expressed in our generous and compassionate love of others, whether they be friend or stranger.
At one time, the apostle Paul had been violently hostile toward any he considered fell short of the perfection required of them. Among them were those who followed in the way of Jesus. Remember, Paul had been a Shammaite Pharisee – those highly committed to the strict observance to the letter of the Hebrew Law. Last week, I described how the rabbi Jesus would have been identified with the Pharisee minority who followed a more liberal rabbinic school of the compassionate teachings of Ben Hillel. The apostle Paul had been educated as a Shammaite rabbi, but he later moved over to the Hillel tradition and began to identify with those he had been previously throwing out of the synagogues. His was a dramatic conversion. He found himself no longer anxious to strive for perfection but rather to trust in the divine acceptance he witnessed among those who followed in the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul’s change of heart and mind prompted him to change his tune and to counsel others to accept one another. We should remember why Paul thought this so important. The prevailing attitude among Jews was to regard others as less than acceptable in the divine scheme of things as a result of their origin . . . gender . . . state of health . . . occupation . . . and social status. The earliest manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel written in Greek use the Greek word “ekthron”, most often translated as “one’s enemy” but also as “alien” or “stranger”. The stranger is not necessarily our enemy, nor should we attempt to make this so. Sadly, that’s exactly how we find these two words being equated in our time and place in reference to our Muslim neighbour.
And what about our English word “enemy”? I went to an on-line etymology dictionary to help me understand its origins. Our word “enemy” is derived from two latin-portuguese words – “in” means “not”, and “amare” “to love” or “to embrace”. This implies our word “enemy” simply refers to that which we do not embrace or love. What merit is there in embracing family and familiar friends? If we pattern our behaviour on that of Jesus, we will embrace our neighbours as they are. Acceptance of strangers does not anticipate uniformity. It requires us to receive others as they are and then, by means of dialogue and mutual understanding, to work through the social challenges.
The gospel we read and heard this morning is taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, Jesus equates perfection with generous love that fails to count the cost. Jesus delivers an entirely new and outrageous theology – that perfect love is discovered in the paradox of power revealed through weakness. When we follow him, he leads us to his cross. That’s more than enough for us to ponder over the next several Sundays leading up to Eastertide.
I close with this prayer:
May our Lord Jesus who walks on wounded feet be our companion on the road.
May our Lord Jesus, who serves with wounded hands equip us to serve others.
May our Lord Jesus, who loves with a wounded heart be our love forever.
May we love God wherever we may be,
And may we see the face of the Lord Jesus in those we greet. Amen.
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo