Perfectly Simple

Sermon On The Mount by Bloch, Wikipedia

Sermon On The Mount by Bloch, Wikipedia

Matthew chapters 5 to 7 contain a collection of Jesus’ teachings that have come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. How many sermons, I wonder, have been preached on these verses: the beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, turning the other cheek, and so on? Many of the best known and loved verses are here. But there is also one verse that doesn’t get mentioned very often at all, for it contains a word we prefer to avoid.

We don’t talk about heresy very much today, we are (or like to think we are) tolerant people. Yet there is one word that still brings the charge of heresy springing to people’s lips; a word we are all taught to avoid, or at least to restrict solely to God; a word that must never, ever be applied to human beings. Which is odd, because right here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does exactly that!

“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Perfection, enjoined on us not as some goal to be aimed at, unattainable this side of heaven, but as the state we should be in now and always! And this is Jesus himself, not Paul or James.

Think about that verse, that word, for a minute. How does it strike you Do you want to embrace it, or run away? Does it thrill you, or do you find yourself wanting to explain it away? What images does it conjure up in your mind? Would you want to be around – let alone be – a perfect person?

At the heart of this problem is our rather strange insistence that certain words acquire different meanings when used in a spiritual context than they have in everyday speech. We do it, for instance, with the word “know”. “How can we know God?” People ask it, even though it is not a question they would normally ask about a friend or spouse. And yet if they would answer the question about another human being they would see that the same answer applies to God: In both cases we get to know the other by some combination of a few basic things like reading about them, talking to their friends, talking (and listening!) to them and, in general, just spending time with them.

I suggest the same approach, that of looking at our “normal” use of the word, will solve our problems with the word “perfect” too. When we understand it correctly it will cease to be a word to shun but rather be the most appropriate word to use about those in the Kingdom. So, how do we use the word?

The example that springs most readily to my mind has to do with babies. When, for instance, my first child was born after a long and difficult labour, as the nurse checked him out, my wife asked how he was. The answer, blessedly, was “He’s perfect!” And so he was. Just under nine pounds and small enough to fit on my forearm, he had all the necessary parts and reactions, and we fell in love with him at once. Nor is he unusual in this – almost all babies call forth the same assessment.

Now, however, some twenty-five years later he weighs a little more than nine pounds and, at six-foot four tall, will no longer fit on my forearm! Is he therefore now imperfect Not at all – if he were still only nine pounds, we would be certain that something was gravely wrong. He is today what he should be today. Were we wrong back then? Should he have been then what he is now in order to be perfect? Again, no. Indeed, the image of his five-foot ten mother trying to give birth to his six-foot four frame – well it just doesn’t work.

So we see an important thing about perfection that we easily overlook: It is not an absolute, fixed state! Perfection can be a moving target and what was perfect yesterday may not be today. This is true of almost all of our uses of the word. After a long, hard day of work a hot, relaxing bath may be the perfect thing, but you would probably think me very strange if I spent every hour of every day soaking in my tub.

This idea of a variable perfection, although it is how we use the word most in everyday conversation, disappears as soon as we see it in a spiritual context. Instead we see only an ultimate, finished, unchanging state. But does such a state exist outside of God Himself? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Clearly, we are not called to this that kind of perfection in this life. Let us instead take our everyday definition of perfection and see if it makes sense in this spiritual context.

“Be perfect” Jesus says, but he also knows we are babes, children, young people, in the kingdom of God. So what can this perfection consist of? What else but to be, here and now, what He wants us to be here and now. Can anything be better, more perfect, than this? Certainly I can imagine myself knowing more, maybe I can see myself praying better, and so on, but if, in God’s wisdom, those are for tomorrow or later, how am I better if I have them now? Surely God’s idea of what is best for us can be trusted. Who is it who dares stand up and claim that there is something better yet – that God’s best is, in reality, only second best?

And if nothing can be better, surely nothing can be easier than this! All we need to do is to listen to the Spirit and obey, to take care of those things that God puts in front of us. We don’t need to worry that we are not “all that we can be”, we can accept ourselves (assuming the Spirit is not convicting us of something), we can be at peace, at rest, even as we know that tomorrow He will require more. And even if our conscience should condemn us for not being “perfect” in the final sense, we know that God is greater than our conscience.

There is no room for pride in this perfection. Confidence and peace, yes, but not pride. For though, by God’s grace, we may have attained it today, tomorrow we will have to attain it again, for it will be new, different. Thus we are kept ever humble, ever aware of our need to listen and obey the Spirit who works within us. So let us take back this word and proclaim it! Not that we have done it, but that God has, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

“Be perfect”.

Amen, and thank you, Jesus.


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2 Responses to “Perfectly Simple”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    There’s the rest of what Jesus says “being perfect”, “being like your Father” means:

    which comes down to wishing, and doing, your best for everybody, “good” or “bad”.

    He’s saying that this is what God is like.

    And people really seem not to want to hear that part, even though it’s likely what keeps us alive.

    The fact that God’s best for some people can look a whole lot like ‘Wrath’; that’s popular.


    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Really good question there.

      I suppose, for some at least, it has to do with not being secure in who they are. An “us vs them” mentality gives them a sense of who they are, but it is an external, childish, one. Still, to be worthwhile, the “them” must be demonised somewhat, and feeling that God’s wrath is on them helps that. I think I am a very tolerant guy, but I must admit there are times I’d like to take some Christians by the shoulders and shake them whilst yelling “Grow up!” But then again, God has had to do that to me a few times too. Thus we are kept humble.

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