Rev. Betsy Scheuerman
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
"You have heard it said, 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn and offer your left also. If someone wants to sue you for your shirt, give your coat as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go two with that person. Give when you are asked to give; do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
You have heard it said, 'love your neighbor, hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, so that you may become children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on evil and good alike, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Focusing Quotation: Matthew 5:48
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Here they are: words that cut me, attributed to Jesus: “Be perfect.”
I’ve spent years coming to terms with my own imperfections, learning to accept them, and sometimes, even love them. I’ve spent more years developing a theology that prizes the imperfect—a theology that sees even Jesus, even God, as imperfect. How dare Jesus tell his disciples to “Be perfect.” What was he thinking? Throughout the Gospel, the disciples are thoroughly imperfect…even aside from Judas’ betrayal, and Peter denying Jesus, not just once, but thrice.
So I do what any modern thinking person does, when confronted with Scripture I don’t like. I look for outs. I search for alternate translations. I probe the meaning of the Greek word used (teleios). I rationalize: Jesus probably didn’t even say this…and sure enough, the Jesus Seminar folks put this saying in gray ink, not red.
Still, the lectionary encourages me to stay with this verse. Wrestle with it. Ponder my resistance. Search for meaning.
Another text describing a demand for perfection floats into consciousness:
Amy Chua’s recent book, Battle Hymn of the Chinese Mother. Chua describes requiring of her daughters the following: perfect grades, first place in any contest, excellence in their instruments, respect (no matter how outrageous her own behavior), good manners (despite the abuse she dishes out), success that will redound to her own glory, total submission to her will, her agenda.
Surely this is not the perfection that Matthew’s Jesus asks of his followers. Jesus doesn’t care about worldly success; if anything, it may be a barrier to the perfection he asks of us (see the story of the rich young man, Mt 19: 16-25). Jesus doesn’t care what school his disciples went to, doesn’t care what their reputations are. No, I think what Jesus is telling us is, You are made in the image of God. Now, live that reality. Be that reality. Make God visible in the world.
Tellingly, the verse, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” comes as the conclusion to a section asking us to love: not just our neighbors, not just those who like us, not just those who are kind to us, but everyone, even our enemies, even those who mistreat us. It’s not our accomplishments that matter, but how well, how widely, how generously we give our love.
Years ago, when my three children seemed to be constantly fighting and tormenting one another, I began to say to them, “Be kind. Be kind.” To my amazement, this actually worked. For a time, my children became kinder and gentler. Of course, they relapsed: they were human. And they would do what human siblings will do to one another. But when I reminded them, “Be kind,” the reality changed. For an hour or so, the realm of God came into being. Not in the abstraction of Platonic ideals of static perfection, but in the midst of the messiness of family life.
Maybe it is the paraphrase in The Message that gets closest to the sense of Jesus’ words: “’W hat I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.’”
Oh God, forgive me my failings. Remind me to forgive not only others, but myself. Help me to see the Divine in myself, and in all I encounter. Let my actions this day come from that holy place: kindness, generosity, and love. Amen
February 20, 2011