September 25, 2016 by Worship, Community, Formation
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Both Paula and Jessica recognise how often this verse has intimidated Christians. It seems to ask the impossible.
But for me it’s different. This has always been one of my favourite of Jesus’ sayings, though until now I’ve never stopped to think about why. Challenged by their posts, I’ve come up with three reasons why it’s always given me hope.
When Jesus says ‘be perfect’, people tend to focus on the word ‘perfect’. The word ‘be’ is just as important! We shouldn’t miss that this is about how you are.
In other words, it’s not a challenge to do all the good things you can possibly do. Many of us coming to this verse hear ‘work harder’, ‘do more’, ‘give more’. This is where the guilt can come from.
But Jesus is telling us that we’ll be known and judged by our character (how we be), not our list of achievements (what we do). It’s a vital clue to how to be Chrisitan. We’re not totting up an account of activities and achievements in order to pass a test: we are making ourselves ready for ongoing encounter – encounter with God, and with every person and part of God’s creation.
Your doing can never be perfect: you could always do one more thing, give one more thing. Trying to do perfectly would wear you ragged – just one reason why we cannot be ‘saved by works’. And the more you do, the worse you’re likely to end up doing it.
Not so with being: you are going to do exactly the same amount of being whether you be perfect or be terrible. So it’s reasonable to claim that being perfect is no more costly than being terrible.
Actually, that’s nearly true, but not exactly. Being perfect does cost – but the cost is discipline and a bit of emotional pain, not total exhaustion. Being perfect does not mean destroying oneself in activity, but shaping it in character. Being perfect affects the way you relate to the world you find around you, whatever it is, whoever is in it.
I owe so much to my parents, who trained me early in this. As one example, they modelled to me to make my speech as honest as possible. If I made a mistake, I should own up. If I saw that I had hurt someone, I should apologise. I can still remember some of the occasions on which I have dragged myself slowly towards an adversary whom I knew I had treated unfairly. It wasn’t comfortable but it was fair. And in treating them fairly, I was also teaching myself that I wouldn’t let myself off the hook.
Even today this kind of ‘being’ is often associated with Christians, who are trusted the world over for honesty – even if they don’t always live up to it. And when people become Christians, learning to discipline their speech and behaviour is a key part of their formation. I recently met an ex-tax collector who told me how, early in her career, she had compiled dodgy evidence against people she ‘knew’ were fiddling the system. She saw that as fair; but when she became a Christian in her mid-thirties she realised that a higher standard was required. Looking back, she still worried that she should apologise to the person whose evidence she had cooked – though as it turned out he had pleaded guilty in any case.
There are obvious links to the Christian practice of confession here. ‘Be perfect’ is also an invitation to recognise that we do get things wrong, but that having got them wrong, the opportunity to ‘be perfect’ has not gone away, but simply changed into a different kind of opportunity.
(3) …as your heavenly Father is perfect.
If we overlook be, we also often ignore the second part of the command. It seems bizarre, but we are told that we can be like God.
It’s worth remembering that much of the time God doesn’t actually do a lot. Mostly he just bes. How does he be? Loving and faithful are the two characteristics often ascribed to him. His being loving and being faithful to us, in all kinds of ways (his Spirit, through prayer, bible reading, in exploration of creation, and interacting with each other in community, for examples) are the characteristics that give Christians the chance to open up in hope to the world around.
‘Be perfect as you heavenly Father is perfect’ is a breathtaking suggestion, for it suggests we can take on God’s character, and that by doing so we can be as good as God to those around us. We have the hope of transmitting God’s goodness just as Jesus does.
This is a message of hope.
So, hearing this little statement, I imagine myself there, close to the front of the crowd, as Jesus teaches. I hear his words ‘be perfect…’ and as he looks around his eyes fall for a second on me. I know in that moment that he is addressing everyone, and that includes me.
In his faithful, loving presence on that hillside, I realise that his words are not after all a command – but an invitation. For a human to be perfect was never possible – until he revealed it was.