Be What...? Be Perfect!
April 01, 2012
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the
kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called
children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for
righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of
“Blessed are you when people revile you and
persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against
you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for
your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way
they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5:1-12, 43-48)
Therefore you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Just by being created we can be more and more closely linked with the Lord. And the more closely we are linked with the Lord, the wiser we will become. And the more closely we are linked with the Lord, the happier we will become. And the more closely we are linked with the Lord, the more distinctly will we seem to ourselves to be master of ourselves, and yet the more obviously and fully will we recognize that we are the Lord’s.
In a way this is very much a sermon for the New Year, and yet it’s absolutely relevant to every single day of our life—this amazing idea of “perfection” and the Lord’s statement “…therefore you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
I have a couple of questions for you about this issue. You are probably already expecting the first one: Are you perfect?
Your knee-jerk immediate answer will surely be, “Of course not. Don’t be absurd! Nobody’s perfect!” Here’s the sub-question to the first one: Do you think you could one day become perfect?
“Hmm,” you think. “Could I? I’d like to think I could, but that first answer still stands . . . Nobody’s perfect . . . nobody’s perfect, ever!”
OK. Here is my second question. Look carefully at the words of the text and decide whether you think they are a command or perhaps only a statement. Is this verse actually saying to us “Be perfect!” as we might say to a naughty four-year-old “Be good…or else!” or “Be quiet, for goodness’ sake!” Or is Jesus simply saying, at the end of a set of words that ask us to love unconditionally, that if we can love like that without expecting something back from it we shall thereby be per fect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect?
I think it’s the second one, the statement that we shall then be perfect as a consequence if we love in that unconditional kind of way. I just can’t see the Lord ever asking us or commanding us to do something that is impossible for us to carry out. It reminds me of another “extreme” statement in the Bible at the other end of the human spectrum, in one of the Psalms where it says very clearly and so helpfully, “O Lord, if you should mark iniquities”—which means our errors or faults—“if you should mark iniquities, who could stand?” Point taken!
So, our perfection comes about when we try to love other people in that complete kind of way without expecting something back, but just loving them for their own sake, even so far as loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, doing good to those who hate us, and praying for those who spitefully use us and even persecute us. Then we are living perfectly, and then and only then are we matching this idea of becoming perfect.
Let’s face it: even loving without expecting anything back is hard enough for us to carry out, so we shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief that we’re not being asked to be perfect! We’re being asked to love without expecting anything back! Can we even do that?
Yes, we can. It’s within our means to do so, even though it seems such a hard task.
We might almost prefer the command “Be perfect” because then we could sit back and say, “Don’t be ridiculous!” and then just carry on the same as always. We quite like that kind of situation. But loving others, whoever and however they are, and loving without expecting anything in return, is something we can adopt and do. It will make us squirm at times, trying to be loving like that when someone is driving us crazy, and we will start thinking, “Why on earth should I love you when you curse me, hate me, use me, stand against me?” This, of course, is setting conditions to our loving, which immediately makes us imperfect.
And we start thinking along those lines because loving without expecting something back just doesn’t come naturally to us. We’ve a whole lifetime’s experience, perhaps, of being part of the mutual appreciation society—love me and I’ll love you…if I love you, you’ve got to love me back…scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours…or however it goes between us.
If that’s what comes naturally to us and if it’s how the world runs it and if it’s how it’s been for over fifty years, we aren’t going to find unconditional loving all that easy! We are going to have a lot to unlearn. The world around us is full of conditional suggestions. It’s called “advertising,” and it’s so devious. “Here’s our wonderful product. Your home will be sparkling and spotless if you used it. You need it.” What they actually mean is “We want your money so that our revenues increase,” but of course they never say that. They seem to think the world of us, we are their “special valued customer,” but it’s all baloney. They are actually quite desperate and ready to lie through their back teeth.
And you see, we can even be like that too, perhaps not even realizing it. We can advertise ourselves very well. Being “nice” is a great example of it—being nice works a treat and gets you liked back and many friends. Two people being nice to each other looks fantastic, and there is nothing wrong with being nice. But it’s really only a conditional love. It isn’t what Jesus is saying or what he’s after, which is this unconditional love—loving in spite of things. That’s the hard one, of course, because it’s based on being consistent and constant. I am going to love you, come what may!
Now, we need to do something important. We need to know what we’re talking about when we say something like “I am going to love you, come what may.” We do not have such love when we say it through gritted teeth! It’s fallen back into conditional love again, and this time we’re setting our own conditions on ourselves: I – will – love – you – come – what – may! We might as well say, “I will peel your potatoes come what may!”
This is the point at which we need to bring the Lord in. If you go back to the passage where these words about being perfect are found, you’ll see that the Lord is mentioned twice. First of all, after the “love your enemies” part, it says, “That you may be sons of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” That is telling us that the Lord is consistent and even undiscriminating—evil and good alike get his sunshine, just and unjust get his rainfall. A great weather analogy we can understand!
The other mention of the Lord is in our reading. “Therefore you shall be perfect…just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That’s very helpful, because it is pointing a number of things out. God is perfect, and so, if we follow God in a real sense, we can gain access to a perfect way of loving. It’s not our love or our ability to love; it is tapping into God’s love coming into us and through us. In fact, I will stick my neck out here and say that you’ve really got to have some sense of the divine or the higher source of all life if you are ever going to succeed at perfect loving—unconditional loving rather than conditional. The real thing starts from God and involves God by drawing on him.
On our own, we might say, “I know there’s a God and He loves us completely, so I will be like that too.” But we’ll come unstuck, because we’re not actually tapping into God, only copying him.
Jesus, when he was in the world, was endlessly talking about his Father. It was a total relationship, even though we know they are basically one and the same. Jesus went beyond the normal status quo of the time, when the focus was on acknowledging God but putting all one’s efforts into keeping the whole law. Jesus kept breaking the law and going beyond it, loving beyond the limits. And really, this is the heart of Christianity. Christianity is about forming a working relationship with God and being the kind of person God wants you to be so that he can work in you and through you. That’s what it is all about, and that is why this verse adds up—“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” There’s the relationship spelled out.
Try and take that to heart and get the mechanics of it as right as you can. On your own or by your own efforts, you simply can’t keep the loving up, no matter how determined you are to do so. It’s a cul-de-sac. Develop a working relationship with God—not just a nod to God sometimes—and own the fact that without God you can do nothing but with God all things become possible. Put the jigsaw of your life in the right order and ask God to work with you and through you, particularly in this business of loving, being constant, knowing that in the end it is God but also discovering that the more you are linked with God, the more you will feel free and relaxed to be who you are and empowered to love in that complete, divine kind of way.
Love and loving is the most important commodity of all, so let’s take it out and advertise it with everything we’ve got. And if you can market it to your target audience, make sure that means everybody. Amen.
Rev. Julian Duckworth