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How To Be Perfect (Matthew 5:38-48)

with 6 comments

Jesus

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

— Matthew 5:48

Seriously, Jesus? Have you even met some of us? Have you seen the depths of our jealousies, the breadth of our greed? Have you noticed how insatiable our egos are? How deeply insecure we all are?

Perfect?

You cannot mean what you seem to mean.

What then do we do with this seemingly impossible call? For many of us, this is one of those passages in the Bible we seek to explain away. Jesus can’t possibly mean what he says here. We reckon that he must be calling us merely to aspire to perfection. Or we conclude that in calling us to perfection, we realize how very far we are from it and thus lean on God’s grace. But certainly, absolutely, without a doubt, Jesus cannot be calling us to be perfect like God is perfect.

Right?

Some context might be helpful. These teachings are part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) and contain within them what scholars call “antitheses.” In each antithesis, Jesus recounts, “You have heard it said…” and then proclaims a different facet of this ancient teaching. Too often, interpreters see Jesus here subverting Jewish traditions and laws, rejecting ancient teachings for the sake of newer ones.

This is simply incorrect. Instead, Jesus embraces these ancient, God-breathed teachings and intensifies their call to love God and neighbor. He is not negating these teachings but calling all their adherents to embody their demands in concrete and radical, practical and transformative ways. In short, Jesus is bringing these laws to life in his time and place.

How then might this impossible call to “be perfect” come to life among us today?

Matthew 5:38-48 contains a litany of seemingly impossible attitudes and behaviors.

After all, the justice we tend to seek is retributive. The Hebrew Scriptures sought to place a cap on the scope of such retribution by making punishments proportional to the crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But what if we were to turn the other cheek and invite a second slap from our enemies? What if we were to give without questions to all those who ask? What then?

The love we tend to share is particular, exclusive. We love those who are our neighbors. That is, we love those people who look, think and act like us. Those other people are our enemies, and our loathing — even if disguised by politeness and kept secret — is uncontrollable. But what if were to love the stranger, pray for those who wish to do us harm?

What do we make of such seemingly impossible calls to refuse the regulations that so often rule over us? What do we make of the curtailing of revenge, the shift among from absolute self-interest, the rejection of a tribalism we still practice today. What do we do with Jesus’ teachings?

As we ponder how we might answer these questions, we might just discover what being perfect looks like. It is not superiority. It is not flawlessness. It is not moral absolutism that cares little for those around you. Instead, perfection is found in love. Perfection is found in relationship with those others who seek to harm us or seek our help.

But, of course, this can all get complicated very quickly.

It is one thing to imagine the challenge of loving your enemy, of daring him to strike you with another blow in the abstract. It is quite another to face the challenge ourselves. These calls to absolute love are easier to bear from the perspective of the powerful, the well-off, those of us insulated from most of the dangers this world can pose. It is much more difficult to imagine these calls to service and love of the enemy from the perspective of the downtrodden.

For instance, in the lead up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we have rightly paid a great deal of attention to the plight of LGBT people living in Russia. Laws recently instituted there are a threat to those who identify their sexuality outside of the legal norm. Moreover, the climate created by such laws easily creates a noxious mix of intolerance and violence. Sadly, believers have been too ready to speak about our LGBT neighbors with certainty rather than love.

What would Jesus say to a man who happens to be gay living in Russia today? When he is assaulted by a gang intent on displaying their violence against homosexuals on YouTube, should he refuse to fight back? Should he turn the other cheek?

What would Jesus say to a woman who happens to be lesbian and is berated by her neighbors? Would Jesus call her to pray for her enemies, hope for their hearts to be softened to her humanity?

This passage is not an exhortation to self-flagellation or even self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. Jesus would not call these individuals to a quiet resignation that assumes nothing will change, justice will never prevail.

Instead, Jesus rejects the ways we tend to flex our power. Seizing upon the real or perceived weakness of others, violence and oppression are both easy and profitable. Too often, neglecting the needy does not induce any sense of worry in our hearts, for we assume that their lowly position and our privileged positions are a result, not of happenstance and privilege, but of will or work or uprightness. Jesus here calls us to buck these too common ways of being. Jesus calls us to resist the powerful not by wielding their weapons against them but by rejecting the very premises of the power they wield.

That is, Jesus does not call us to resignation but radical love.

Perhaps then Jesus knows us all too well. He understands how narrow our love can be, how expansive a shape our hatred can take. Jesus sees this in us but also notices something else. He sees how God’s love inhabits and transforms us. He sees how broken relationships are made whole as the Spirit moves among us. He sees that justice can reign whenever we love our neighbors, no matter who they are.

— Mirsolav Volf

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Written by MattAndJojang

February 19, 2014 at 10:23 am

6 Responses

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  1. It’s uncanny Matt, with reference to your opening text, I’ve just read this as my thought for the day.

    “The Christian life is not hard to live – it’s utterly impossible to live ! Only one can live it – Let Him, in you”.

    That aside, the subject of meeting people of all walks of life, which is something I have to do as a part of my work, is often on my mind. I hope you don’t mind me adding my thoughts.

    The only reason we exist is that God calls us by name into existence every day. We must ask every day for his permission ‘to be’. Our very being, from soul to cell can only exist as long as he “speaks” it. I believe through contemplation we can start to hear the echo of God’s voice in our being. So as we recognise and acknowledge God’s voice in our being more and more, the gap between our flawed voice and his perfect voice becomes narrower.

    Amidst my morning office I ask that ‘I may be as Christ to those I meet and that I should find Christ within those I greet’. Surely one of the keys to this is contemplation and contemplative prayer. Not only would the ‘sound’ of God calling our name and self into existence be louder, but more importantly, we will start to recognise his voice in every soul that we meet whether they are aware of their God or not.

    Senan

    February 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm

  2. This is beautiful, Senan! Thank you for sharing.

    Often we (myself included) have the tendency to rush headlong with the day’s activities, without much thought and reflection. It is always good to start the day with reflection and prayer, especially contemplative prayer. I’ve read somewhere that contemplative prayer is Christianity’s best kept secret. It’s sad, though, that only a few Christians are aware of the beauty and power of contemplative prayer. Many ministers, priests, and other church leaders either never talk about contemplative prayer at all, or seem to be uncertain about its role in the Christian life.

    At the heart of contemplation is not only our union with God in Christ, but also finding God in the events of our lives, and in the persons we meet. In the delightful words of St. Teresa of Avila: “Know that even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans.” Also, I think, this is also one of the great themes of Thomas Merton’s writings. If I’m not mistaken, for Merton, the spiritual life meant the experience of God’s presence and love at all times, combining that with action in everyday life.

    If we keep this in mind, and really open ourselves to God’s action and grace through contemplative prayer, we will be able to live the Christian life, in spite of its seemingly challenging or, even, impossible demands. In the words of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

    — Matt

    MattAndJojang

    February 19, 2014 at 5:03 pm

  3. Thank you for your kind and wise words. It is indeed one of my missions to spread the word about the wonders of contemplative prayer. All to often I’m greeted with, at best, “We might look into it” followed by an eternal silence on the matter, and at worst a frown and a, “Oh no, we don’t go in for that sort of thing !”. As you’ve already mentioned the great man, I could go for hours about one Thomas Merton….. I don’t know if you are a fan of Brother Lawrence, as I find one of his themes is that of constant prayer and that there should be no distinction between the daily office and the daily work.

    Senan

    Senan

    February 20, 2014 at 2:10 am

  4. You’re welcome, Senan.

    It’s really a pleasure for me to talk about contemplative prayer. Sad to say, though, there are only a few people with whom I can talk about it. Just like you I discovered that a lot of people are resistant to it.

    Yes, Brother Lawrence! Love his delightful book (actually a compilation of his letters) The Practice of the Presence of God. A simple man who experienced God in a profound way, so much so that for him there was no longer a difference between his prayer and work. A true contemplative whose experience of God was not confined only during his time for prayer, but encompassed his entire life! My favorite quote from the book:

    “For me the time of action does not differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are together calling for as many different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as when upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”

    For the contemplative, the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular no longer exists. This was also one of the great insights of Thomas Merton.

    One of the difficulties that some of his readers had with Merton’s earlier works (I didn’t have this difficulty, though) is this sharp distinction between the supernatural and the natural. Speaking of one of his earlier books Seeds of Contemplation, one person puts it this way: “There is so sharp a break and so deep a gulf between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ that those who refuse to take the leap must be pardoned.”

    But through the years he matured, and if we read his later works, we will notice that this dichotomy no longer exists. In fact, his revision of Seeds of Contemplation, which turned out to be a classic on contemplation New Seeds of Contemplation, is considered by some as his best work.

    — Matt

    MattAndJojang

    February 20, 2014 at 9:35 am

  5. The potential of narrowing this gulf and dare I say even scratching the surface is what now excites me…

    Thank you Matt.

    A quote from W. R. Inge

    “The only true mystic is one who sees realities and knows how to distinguish them from phantasies. The foundation of mysticism is an inner kinship or union between the human spirit and the divine. In mystical experience there is no longer any insurmountable dualism between the supernatural and the natural, the divine and the created, for in it the natural becomes supernatural and the creature is deified. Mysticism is the immanence of the Holy Spirit in the created world.”

    …and the creature becomes deified…Wow !

    Senan

    Senan

    February 21, 2014 at 3:54 pm

  6. Wonderful! I can’t help but also share in your excitement, Senan.

    I agree 100% with this:

    “In mystical experience there is no longer any insurmountable dualism between the supernatural and the natural, the divine and the created, for in it the natural becomes supernatural and the creature is deified.”

    In the Eastern tradition, especially in Zen and Advaita, this emphasis on the breakdown of the subject-object relations is much more pronounced. Zen enlightenment is described by one Zen Master as experiencing “that the world is one interdependent Whole and that each separate one of us is that Whole.”

    Although only quite a few are aware of this, we have also in our own Christian tradition mystics who have taught and experienced the non dual and unitive nature of reality. For instance, the anonymous author of the Christian classic on contemplative prayer The Cloud of Unknowing is no less unrelenting than the Zen Masters in his efforts to withdraw his disciple from subject-object relations. In one of his minor treatises called The Epistle of Privy Counsel he says God is your being (not “God is you or in your being,” etc.) – though your being is not the being of God. Simply be! Lose the sense of your being for a sense of the being of God! I think my favorite mystic, Meister Eckhart, was expressing a similar thought when he said: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

    Yes, we have barely scratched the surface. What we perceive as reality is really an illusion. The great mystics, both in the East and the West, have pointed put that there is more to what we can perceive with our 5 senses. The German theologian Karl Rahner said: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” A pretty radical statement, but to which I wholeheartedly agree.

    As we study the great Christian contemplatives and mystics may we be given the grace to even have a tongue-tipped taste of the deeper realities that they’re talking about. Because in the face of Christ are myriads of contours yet to be explored; his voice speaks in rich and vibrant tones that our ears have not yet heard; his eyes are pools of wisdom that our gaze has not yet fathomed…

    — Matt

    MattAndJojang

    February 21, 2014 at 6:35 pm


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