If turning cheeks, forgiving and praying for enemies, giving away our stuff, going the extra mile, fighting fire with water, weren’t enough, Jesus added the imperative: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
For those of us who are Type A personalities – and I know many of us are in this church – these words come across as fodder for more guilt, more spinning faster on the hamster wheel, paddling like a duck even harder underwater while trying to appear on the surface as though we’re gliding. “Be perfect? Ok … I’ll try harder, Lord!” We work to reach for a goal that, let’s be honest, is illusory and elusive.
It’s tempting to disregard Jesus’ words as impossible and even ludicrous.
“Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The desire for an elusive standard of perfection in American culture is killing us.
(I want to qualify my statements here because we all know and lament the disparities between privileged children’s educational standards of success and the inequality of the standards for the least privileged. I will speak from my own privileged context and my experience as a parent.)
I have been known to rant about the culture of perfection that adults have created for children and youth. And, my family was and is as susceptible to this culture as any family. We want our children to be the “Best” in all things, i.e. grades, sports, test scores, friendship circles, extra-curricular activities. We praise them for their accomplishments, and then expect them to do even better. We test them for gifted programs. We fear them being bored in school, and bored after school.
So, we over-schedule them, putting them in an unrealistic number of activities. Children come home from school and still have hours of homework to do. Even little ones have homework?! What happened to play and wonder, and extra time? There seems to be no down time for children, and we wonder why anxiety, stress, depression and mood disorders are at dangerously high levels for kids (and adults) in this country.
What are we adults modeling for them ourselves? What values do we convey in our own behaviors? As a pastor, I question how does the church witness (or not) to deeper values than the ones kids are confronting every day?
When pressed, we would all agree that society should not dictate measurements of success. Of course we believe that our kids are loved to their core, and that there’s nothing they can do to earn our love—and certainly they cannot earn God’s love.
But we speak and act differently. We are seduced by a world that says we must be “perfect.” Girls and women struggle with unrealistic standards of beauty, and many turn those external expectations in upon themselves in harmful ways. I’ve read that there are a growing number of both young men and adult women receiving treatment for eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
What is happening?! This is craziness! We are overwhelmed and we allow ourselves to take in the lies that wound our souls and spirits. Even as a collective we don’t know how to keep our heads above the tidal wave of assault.
If you watched the Olympics Thursday night, you probably saw the debut of a Cadillac commercial. Its message was one we all know too well. It was just so blatant that it left Tim and me with our mouths open.
The message? Anyone in America can have the American dream.
And the dream of course– according to Cadillac– is a lifestyle dripping with luxury goods, especially a Cadillac.
The commercial’s message is delivered by a wealthy, well-groomed father (albeit a little cheesy) character as he walks around his gorgeous home showcasing the stuff he has “earned” because of his hard work. The character says, “Other countries, they work. They stroll home. They stop by the cafe. They take August off. Off.
Why aren’t you like that?
Why aren’t we like that?
Because we’re crazy-driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.”
He concludes, while driving off in his stunning Cadillac, “As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?”
It was strange enough that Cadillac aired that commercial during the Olympics implying criticism of other countries and their way of life and values. (Way to go, America!) It was more disconcerting that the message “if any one works hard enough, he or she can get all the goodies”—was so unapologetic.
Madison Avenue is not naive. Some would say that this is all tongue-in-cheek, and maybe so. I rather think it’s a bold acknowledgement that the misguided values of our culture, subtly and not so subtly, continue to indicate that the parent(s) who works all day and then goes to second job in the evening is not working hard enough.
IF they were, they’d get the goodies too. The dominant message is that there’s a level playing field out there. But come on! Like someone trying to sell us the piece of swampland as valuable real estate, we have the choice not to buy it.
Is the depiction of the wealthy home and beautiful family what Jesus meant by perfection?
What kind of perfection then are we supposed to be aiming for?
“To be perfect like our Father in heaven is perfect” clearly puts us in a realm that is not of this world. That kind of perfection is not about hard work, no vacations, and doing the “right things” in order to be rewarded with material goods.
No. The perfection that Jesus spoke of comes from a place that is already deep within us, not outside us.
The word on my epiphany star is Integrity. So I’ve been contemplating this word over the past seven weeks.
The Greek word “perfect” is telos. “Perfect” is not about flawless, or moral perfectionism, but it means integrity and wholeness. Truth and purpose.
The word perfect can also mean “being grown-up or mature” in faith. When one is grown up in faith, she knows who she is. To be grown up in faith means that we recognize that we don’t need material goods to feel successful. Maturity in faith means actively resisting measuring one’s worth by external standards.
A whole or mature person tries to live by a truth that is above and beyond the shallow values of our world.
One doesn’t have to be an adult to be mature in faith. Remember young Ruby Bridges, the six year-old girl who was the first African American to integrate the all-white, New Orleans school in 1960? Most white families pulled their kids out of William Frantz Elementary the day she started. Each day Ruby walked into the school with federal marshals on each side of her because that first grader received daily death threats.
Ruby was known to pray for her enemies on her way to school though. Her mother told her to pray because God would protect her. Ms. Bridges writes, “As they shouted at me as I walked through the crowd, I prayed for God to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing.” Sound familiar?
Ruby was a perfect little girl confident that she was God’s child. That little girl was stronger than any marshal armed with a weapon.
Strength like hers comes from a divine well that we all can tap into. Love like that isn’t something we manufacture. Love is in our DNA because God is in our DNA.
For Matthew’s community, it was about showing a mature faith through the love they showed for the poor and those in need. To be perfect was to be generous, kind and to actively resist violence. There was for Matthew only one way to live and that was being completely open to love – to receive it and give it.
As John preached last week, Jesus raised the standard on how we are to treat each other. The standard is Love.
When we actively seek to love others, all sorts of unlikely behaviors result.
We start forgiving our enemies.
When we seek to love, we stop requiring them to give back what they owe us.
We let go of hurts and grudges because really they’re not worth the toll they take on us personally, let alone destroy our relationships.
We begin to feel free ourselves, so that space and breathing room opens up inside our hearts where peace and joy can take up residence.
It’s not a surprise the hard words of Jesus’ on the mount shaped both Gandhi’s non-violent strategy against the British colonial occupation in India, and Dr. King’s non-violent resistance to changing our world. To resist evil, to return love for hate, is certainly not for the weak and passive.
It was God’s truth and strength which gave those young people at the lunch counter sit-ins courage to face their persecutors. It was their conviction that all children are loved.
That all children are valued.
That all children are worthy of dignity.
That all children are Perfect just as God in heaven is perfect.
A friend of mine told me that she grew up hearing her mom say, “Julie, you are very special. But not that special.” Her mom meant, claim the truth of who you are, but never forget that all children are God’s children.
So don’t get hung up or give up on Jesus’ call to be perfect. God’s intention is for us to accomplish our God-given purpose: to seek to be a reflection of God’s own nature of love and forgiveness.
Eugene Peterson’s modern version of the Bible, The Message, is helpful when he translates, “You are kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
Be who you are, my friends. And live like it.