Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As we have listened to the readings from the Sermon on the Mount over the last few Sundays, we’ve kind of gotten used to hearing Jesus make one extraordinary demand on us after another. It’s not enough any more to we refrain from murder; you have to refrain from anger and insult, too. It’s not enough just to refrain from adultery; you have to refrain from feeling sexual desire. And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us to treat people who harm us kindly, to give without stint, and to love our enemies.
Then comes something even worse: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Oh sure! No problem!
Of all the difficult demands Jesus makes on us, this has to be the worst. We sometimes try to soften it a bit. We note that the Greek word teleios doesn’t mean “perfect” in the sense of “every hair in place.” It means “perfect” in the sense of “complete, fully grown, mature.”
It doesn’t help all that much, does it? No, this is just really difficult. We so much want the Scriptures to give us simple straightforward directives that we might actually have some hope of fulfilling. And then Jesus comes up with this. What’s going on?
Maybe the first thing to say about the deep mysteries of human life—which are also the deep truths about human life—is that they’re never entirely simple. Even talking about them means getting involved in what sound like contradictions. Things like: “You have to stand on your own two feet” vs. “You never outgrow your need of others.” Either one of those maxims, if carried too far, can get you into deep trouble; but they’re both necessary. We live in the midst of these contradictions, one foot on each side of the fault line, and this always feels like an uneasy spot to be in. Jesus does a very good job in the Sermon on the Mount of trying to prevent us from stepping exclusively to one side of the fault line or the other. And he doesn’t do it by making things easy.
We have a tendency to think of growth in virtue—growth in our humanity, to put it another way—in quantitative terms: This week I have done a large handful of good things and a small handful of bad things. My score is probably about 60 percent. I hope. But next week I’ll try to do better. I’ll aim for 62 or 63 percent. I’ll do two good deeds a day instead of just one—or five a week any way. For starters, I won’t express the anger I feel toward my colleague at work and will try to remember his good qualities as well as his bad.
Okay, I’m making fun of this. But it’s almost inevitable, isn’t it? How can I take stock of what sort of human being I’ve been turning into lately without summoning the details into my consciousness? We’re concrete beings, living in space and time. What we do is important. If we could do more good and less harm, that would be a net gain for the world.
But then, along comes Jesus and says to us, “Sorry, 60% isn’t a passing grade any more. Everyone needs to be doing A+ work—plus a little something extra.”
Or not. What Jesus sys about God in this passage today—the God whose perfection we’re supposed to imitate—basically breaks the whole method of accounting. The God he talks about isn’t a meticulous being who does everything exactly right; this God’s perfectionism definitely isn’t of the every-hair-in-place variety. This God is a kind of wild prodigal, scattering gifts everywhere, on the deserving and on the undeserving. What kind of model is that?
And just to make things still more perplexing and uncomfortable, let me throw in another saying from the Sermon on the Mount—one we heard two weeks ago: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Now, the scribes and the Pharisees have gotten a bad press among Christians for the last two thousand years. So you might think, at first, “Well, that should be easy.” No. In Jesus’ time, they were the very people who put the most thought, attention, and energy into leading good disciplined lives. And here’s Jesus telling us that we have to do better than them or we’re not even in the running, as it were.
So what’s going on here? Jesus was trying to get something across to us that can’t be neatly summed up in a few words. There are two sides to it and we have to grasp both of them, even if they don’t seem to agree. One side is that we need the rules that allow us to do our moral accounting and prompt us to acknowledge our failings (and our occasional successes, too, of course). The other side is that it won’t really work. And we know that from experience.
We know that the most seriously, determinedly righteous people can develop strange blindspots and do things that may be deeply harmful. It’s a truism in church life that faithful people can become narrow, exclusive, and punishing. There are whole categories of Christians who have that reputation, even when it’s not in fact always deserved. Think of all those horror stories about harsh nuns wielding their rulers on students in parochial schools in the 1950s. But we also hear stories of gratitude for nuns who taught well and nurtured their students, and you recognize that something significant is going on. Nuns are very good people, but that isn’t always enough. But serious righteousness has an uncanny capacity to slide over into its own opposite. We can easily assemble a good list of examples: the New England Puritans, the Iranian ayatollahs, the Religious Right in the US in our own time. . . .
It’s the same thing with these scribes and Pharisees. They were good people. They had the respect of the public. They were serious about doing the right thing. Yet, they wound up playing a part in the quasi-judicial murder of an innocent man. Yes, the Romans killed Jesus. But it was serious, religious people who set it up.
So what about being perfect as God is perfect? What does Jesus want us to grasp here? It’s much the same as what he says a few lines earlier: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
The righteousness Jesus is pushing us toward isn’t just the quantitative, additive kind. It’s a righteousness that changes our whole perspective on life. It’s a righteousness that has caught a glimpse of God’s love and wants, more than anything else, to start sharing in that love and offering it to others. This isn’t additive righteousness. This is a righteousness that takes hold of us and transforms us.
Is it any easier? No, it’s probably more difficult. No wonder Jesus told us our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—not by exceeding it in quantity, in the number of things done according to rule, but by looking beyond my current moral excellence quotient toward the goal of it all, toward a world in which God’s love is shared freely among human beings.
Loving our enemies is never easy. Even praying for those who persecute us doesn’t work very well if we try doing it as a duty. But there are centuries of women and men who have loved and prayed for those least worthy of that love and been transformed by it into beacons of light for the world around them. They are the true saints, the true Christians, the ones who caught what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.
There are some at Mother Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. They know that forgiving the young man who killed so many of their families and fellow congregants is an awkward, messy, uncomfortable process that may not even do him any good. But they have caught a vision of God’s prodigal, messy righteousness and they’re trying to share in it.
Maybe we can make a start—give it a try in our own, somewhat less daunting situation. We might start with Mr. Trump, so much disliked and feared by people in our congregation—and not without reason. I’m not saying that we should turn all “sweetness and light” and lie about his wrong doings and his falsehoods. And I’m not saying that we quit resisting or trying to make the world a better place. That’s not what those people in Charleston are doing. They’re not surrendering to the evil. In fact, it’s more like they’re refusing to be co-opted by it. They’re refusing to let someone else’s hatred take over their own heart and minds.
Now, you know, forgiveness really starts as an act of prayer. And you don’t want to lie to God in prayer. It just creates a bad connection: God can still hear you (and knows you’re putting on a performance), but you can’t hear God very well.
But I think we could get a helpful start—some guidance in how to do this, from the Book of Common Prayer. I’m thinking of two prayers from the Great Litany.
One runs like this:
That it may please thee so to rule the hearts of thy servants, the President of the United Stats and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
And the other, perhaps even more to the point just now, is this:
That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
Amen, we say. And Amen.
Sermon preached by Bill Countryman at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley
February 19, 2017
Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48