A pretty tall order, if you ask me. An unreasonable demand, to be sure. But then there it is in Scripture. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." What on earth – or in heaven – could our Lord be getting at…? How could we, after all, ever hope to be as perfect as God -- as our “heavenly Father?” We seem to have a hard enough time just being ourselves, just being human. Trying to be as perfect as God sounds, on the face of it, not only vain or arrogant but almost like a recipe for disaster.
Surely Jesus must be joking.
Now, those of you who were with us last Sunday at worship will find today’s Gospel text at least vaguely familiar. It is after all a continuation of the same text from the Sermon on the Mount which we read last week; the section called among scholars, Matthew’s Antitheses, or opposites. Our Lord contrasts what “you have heard said,” as he puts it, with what he himself has to say. And far from disavowing the Law and its expression, as we saw, our Lord takes its meaning to a new and higher level. He demands more. And then more still. Until, as we have just seen in today’s text, he challenges us to be perfect.
Scholars have pondered the meaning of this text for centuries. Most of them of course have quite reasonably tried to explain it away and tame it. Make it somehow a saying of Jesus we can live with – without having to materially change anything in our lives. Without in other words having to become perfect. I suppose my humble sermon this morning can be counted as my small contribution to this effort.
Be perfect. What would a perfect human being look like anyway…? Tall, dark, and handsome, if a man…? Glamorous and alluring, if a woman…? Would that be perfect…? Or on the other hand, how about Mother Theresa…? Surely, she must have been perfect. Or, Saint Francis… Or, maybe our very own Saint Margaret. Any or all of them must have been far closer to perfection than you or I. As Christians, I suppose we could cite Jesus -- for he was indeed perfect. But then he also had the unfair advantage of being God – one not granted to any of us -- in case you had not noticed.
This dilemma of perfection does not arise, as far as I know, with any other creature. We would not normally ask if a cat is perfect, as much as we might like Kitty. Or a dog, or a tree, for instance; no matter how fond we may be of any of them. They simply are what they are. Good dog, bad dog. It is still a dog. But of ourselves we always seem to demand more, as if being ourselves is just not quite good enough. Be better, we tell ourselves. Or if we do not, our parents do. Or our boss does, surely. “Strive for excellence” seems to be the demand of most titles in the business section of any bookstore. It is all enough to drive you crazy. But then alas you would be even further from perfection.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” Jesus recommends in this selfsame Gospel passage from Matthew. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” One commentator writes that, when forced to choose, Jesus’ true disciples should readily become victims. I am not so sure I agree with this interpretation. No one wants to be victimized, used, or cheated, after all. Still, if we open ourselves and our hearts to others it is quite possible that we may be hurt as well. But likewise in our fear of being hurt or made a victim, we may, if we are not careful, lose our ability to be vulnerable – to trust, to love.
As our Lord notes, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Whether we are perfect or not, God loves us just the same. And, we -- all of us -- are all in the same boat, as rickety and weather-beaten as it may be. So, what about perfection…?
Perhaps what Jesus is telling us is that we can determine our state of perfection – not by some unattainable measure of physical or even moral excellence – but by our willingness to be vulnerable and open to the needs of others. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." It has nothing to do with always getting everything right – because we will not.
But God himself has become in Christ and Christ’s Cross perfect in vulnerability. What else could we say of One willing to become one with us in all our messy imperfection and strings of failures too long to talk about. So, is it easy being perfect…? Alas, perfection in the usual sense is a cinch compared to perfection in vulnerability and openness and love. But the nice thing about being vulnerable – as opposed to being perfect – is that we can all do it . Just as soon, that is, as we stop trying to be perfect and allow God to perfect us.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Be love – as God is love.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs