David A. Davis
March 12, 2017
The word “perfect” is rare in the four gospels. For that, I guess, folks like us should be grateful. Folks like us, meaning human beings. There’s no shortage of “perfect” in the epistles, however. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4). “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (James 1). “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12). Perfect love. Perfect gift. The will of God, good, acceptable, perfect. Lots of “perfect.” But in the gospels, both English and Greek, the word occurs just a few times. Three to be exact and two of them I just read to you from Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The only other instance of the word is also in Matthew. In chapter 19 Matthew writes about someone who came to ask Jesus about what good deed has to be done to have eternal life. Jesus responded, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The man asks which one. Jesus rattles off a few from the list of ten. The man said, “I’m all over that. Got it. What else do I lack?” “If you wish to be perfect,” Jesus said, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard that, Matthew tells the reader, “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Perfect. The Sermon and then Jesus’ call to the rich young man. Only three times in the gospels. But maybe that’s plenty when it comes to perfection.
Pope Francis has been shaking it up a bit recently. This week he said in an interview that he would entertain the idea of married men becoming priests. He shared thoughts that were much more nuanced on the subject but that was the headline. Last week, just as Lent was starting, in another interview the Pope said that one should always give to the poor and stop worrying about how that person on the street might spend the money. “Who are we to judge?” was his basic argument. And don’t just toss the money in their direction, he said. You have to look them in the eye, touch them, and in so doing acknowledge their human dignity. Some published responses to the Pope’s word about serving the poor covered the spectrum from cynicism to practicality. If someone chose to follow the Pope’s teaching they would soon be a beggar and homeless themselves, one person wrote. Another article pointed out how that in any city in the United States it just would be impossible (in case you had not already figured that out). Others suggested that the Pope must have been exaggerating and that anyone who works in an urban center knows you have to make a plan when it comes to beggars and stick to it to give your philanthropic dollars in ways that go the farthest while working on advocacy and policy. Maybe in that interview, all the Pope was trying to say was, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. Giving to anyone who begs or wants to borrow from you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And in the context and flow of the Sermon on the Mount it’s not just that short list of aspirational behavior in play. Jesus’ zinger of a concluding sentence, his rhetorical flare, his memorable, quotable sermon snippet goes all the way back to where we left off last week about Jesus coming to fulfill the law. Jesus preaches about reconciling with a brother or sister and not letting your anger open you to judgment, and lusting in your heart being akin to adultery, and if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out, and divorce, and making an oath, letting your yes and yes and your no be no. Then he says, “Perfect. Be Perfect.”
In his book on the Sermon on the Mount, Professor Allison from Princeton Seminary points out that if Jesus was suggesting moral perfection here, if Jesus was calling those disciples and the crowd listening in to a kind of perfection that means being without sin, if Jesus was intending to refer to sinlessness with the word “perfect,” why would his teaching in the Lord’s Prayer include a petition for daily forgiveness. Just a bit later in the Sermon, Jesus teaches them how to pray and how to ask for forgiveness. It strains theological, spiritual common sense to think that Jesus’ turn of phrase is a hyperbolic call for sinlessness. The word “perfect” might appear a whole lot more in the epistles but it is exactly there where the first interpreters of the gospel, the first theologians affirm that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3) and that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1). Jesus may have been tempted in every way as we are and was yet without sin (Hebrews 4), but as for us, not so much.
The Common English Bible translates the 48th verse of chapter five like this: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Professor Allison and others point out that the Greek word for “perfect” here, telios, can be translated, can bear the connotation of “complete.” When Jesus asked that rich young man “if you wish to be perfect…” he was asking him if you want to be all in, if you want to really do this discipleship thing right now, if you want to be completely, utterly, drop-your-net-and-follow-me in, then sell your possessions, give the money to poor, and come, follow me. It’s a “if you want to be complete” kind of commitment.
No, not “you complete me” as Tom Cruise said to Renee Zellweger in the film Jerry Maguire. But more like, there is a completeness, a wholeness when it comes to God and God’s kingdom. It’s God’s perfection, not ours. God’s perfect love. There is an “A to Z” and “Alpha to Omega” sense to God’s whole kingdom of love, righteousness, justice, and peace. It has a “this is it” sort of definition. When it comes to turning the other cheek and caring for the poor and loving your enemies, that’s how it is, that’s how it will be in the kingdom. It is perfect, just perfect. Life in the kingdom of God is the definition of turning the other cheek and serving the least of these and a love that knows no bounds. Complete in the kingdom. Complete in him, in Jesus, for that matter. Perfect. Just perfect.
Three times here in Matthew Jesus used the word. Only three times in all of the gospels. But he must have thought it more than that. You remember when Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury at the temple. Jesus also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. Jesus said to the disciples gathered around him, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for they contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, has put in all the living that she had.” What Jesus could have said when he looked over to her was “perfect, just perfect.”
When Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman broke open a very expensive jar of oil and began to anoint his head. It created quite a stir and everyone else in the room became angry and started to scold the woman. That’s when Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why yell at her. She is offering me a service and anointing my body beforehand for burial.” Jesus spoke those puzzling words about the poor always being with you. “Truly I tell you, whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” That’s how he finished. He must have been thinking “perfect, just perfect.”
When Jesus and the disciples were up around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus looked up and saw a huge crowd coming toward him. Jesus turned to Philip and asked how they were going to feed all these people. Andrew said, “There’s a little boy here who has five loaves and two fish.” Jesus told them to invite everyone to sit down. What he might have thinking was this is perfect, just perfect. After Jesus told the one about the Good Samaritan, he said to that rich lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” He could have easily said, “Be perfect, just perfect.” The father who embraced his lost son, crying out “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found.” Those hugging words could have been “perfect, just perfect.” The wise maidens who brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning, the sheep who did all that was described unto the least of these, Martha who chose the better portion and sat at the feet of Jesus, the tax collector who beat his own chest in prayer and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” The one leper who came back to throw himself at the feet of Jesus and offered him thanks. All of them. All of them. It could have been. He could have said, he could have thought, “Perfect, just perfect.” Because each and every one of those snapshots, those scenes from the life the kingdom, they point to something greater. They offer a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Turns out there’s a whole lot more of “perfect” in the gospel than the three times the word was used.
After the Women’s March back in January, I talked to colleagues and church members and friends and family who all participated in Washington, in New York, in Trenton. One thing, one theme, was consistent in every report and description I heard. What was most meaningful was that sense of being a part of something greater. It wasn’t a particular speech that folks will remember. Most folks could quote a saying or two from a sign or share a chant that moved through the crowd. Everyone noted the lack of any incident or any violence, But what will most be remembered, according to people who went, was that feeling of taking a small part, a little cog, one voice in something that was so much bigger, greater, more important, more profound. Knowing somewhere deep within that day, that each was a part of a powerful message so beyond themselves, but somehow made greater because of the presence of each and every one.
Anyone who has been a part of a choir when the piece was just sublime, or in the jazz band the night they killed it, or on a team that won a game they were not supposed to, or part of a group at work that met the untenable deadline, or in the cast when the play soared to another level, or in the congregation for that Easter proclamation never to forget (“Christ is risen”). Jesus’ exhortation to perfection isn’t a call to a beyond human sinless state. It is an invitation to take part in a kingdom of forgiveness, generosity, and love that is so much bigger and greater, more profound than you can even fathom. And don’t forget the one who is doing the exhorting, the one who is preaching here. Jesus and all those snapshots, those scenes. His life of forgiveness, generosity, and love. The exhortation is to be a part of something much greater and in so doing, to draw near to Christ himself. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
There is a major gathering this week in the Presbyterian Church. It’s called the “Next Conference.” About 600 Presbyterians from around the country will gather to worship, to be inspired, to hear about compelling ministries, to discern what might be next in the PC(USA). Tom Charles has been invited to speak. Together with Sue Jennings, Ann Youmans, and others, Tom leads our ministry in refugee resettlement. Tom has prepared a guidebook for sponsoring refugees that has already been shared with hundreds of contacts in other congregations. I received an advanced of Tom’s remarks to the conference next week and with his permission I share this one small bit.
At one point Tom tells of his own motivation and passion for being involved in refugee work. He cites the influence of his parents and grandparents. He mentions being a part of a congregation that has resettled twelve families over 60 years. But then Tom writes this, “But, most of all, my passion comes from the realization that I am most fulfilled as a Christian when I do this work, receiving back so much more than I provide. Put very simply, it is when I am working with a refugee that I feel closest to Christ.”
The hours, the hurdles, the joy, the frustration, the challenges, the laughter, the hard conversations, the organizing, the job training, the language teaching.
“It is when I am working with a refugee that I feel closest to Christ.”
Tom might have put it another way, “It’s perfect, just perfect.”
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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