A game was released in 1973 called Perfection. The object of the game is to put all the pieces into the matching holes on the board (which is pushed down) before the time limit runs out. When the time runs out, the board springs up, causing many if not all of the pieces to fly out. In the most common version of the game there are 25 pieces to be placed in a 5 x 5 grid within 60 seconds (Wikipedia “Perfection (board game)”)
The commercials for the game showed a manic child rushing to get as many pieces in place before the time runs out or the timer is stopped. Of course, the advertisement wants you to think that the goal is impossible to meet, and shows children making the “Oh no!” face as the board pops. Why? Because perfection is unachievable, or at least very difficult to attain.
We are conditioned at a young age to believe this. We can’t be perfect. Unless you are the 1972 Miami Dolphins, you don’t get to have a perfect season. You can’t be perfect—“nobody’s perfect.”
Which means we either cringe when we hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” or we don our trusty selective hearing ear plugs and pretend we never heard him say it. We cringe because we’re either uncomfortable with our own state of imperfection, or we’re uncomfortable that Jesus would set us up for failure by even suggesting such a thing. Or we ignore it because surely Jesus is just using hyperbole to get our attention, so maybe then we’ll try just a little bit harder to be kind.
But I think this bears reflection upon. This whole passage is set up by the phrase “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” and then is punctuated by “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But maybe Jesus, being a good rabbi, is just in dialogue with and referencing Leviticus 19:2 which commands Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Holiness, the way it is used in Leviticus, and perfection, the way Jesus talks about it in Matthew aren’t interchangeable words. Holy in Hebrew is “Kadosh” and implies differentiation, set apart, or set aside for a specific purpose. Matthew’s word for perfect, in the Greek, is “teleios” which means complete in all its parts, full grown, or full age, completeness of character. They aren’t interchangeable but they do meld together fairly well in a conceptual way.
Leviticus 18 begins with this: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing do one shall live: I am the Lord.” (Lev 18:1-5) Leviticus 19 continues with this in mind. The ordinances given to Israel, the means of holiness given to them, are meant to show that they are different from the nations.
It is the intentional leaving of edges in the fields at harvest, the gleanings left behind, the small amount of grapes left behind that demonstrate holiness—differentiation. It is dealing ethically in their business practices that makes them holy—different from those who dwell in Egypt and from those who dwell in Canaan. It is in treating those with whom we live in community with the same dignity and respect that we desire—loving our neighbor as ourself—that demonstrates holiness.
What is telling about this notion of holiness is that it is so alien to us that is makes for very compelling television. Take Extreme Makeover: Home Edition where families in dire straights due to health issues and/or financial burdens are “adopted” by friends, family, or members of the community and given something they would never be able to get on their own. Almost always ends with views in tears—or as one of my friends from seminary calls it, “an ugly cry.” Why do we ugly cry at the end of shows like this? Because our hearts are wired to want people to live with dignity.
Undercover Boss does a similar thing but bosses go incognito as entry level employees to experience what their lower lever workers experience. Most of the time there is a compelling story of hardship with one employee (because it makes for good television) and the boss is moved to, in one form or another, restore some lost dignity to the individual or to their family, wrapping up the show with another healthy session of ugly crying.
These things make for compelling television because it’s so alien to how we have come to know what life is like. There are haves and have nots—and have nots might actually become haves if they would trust try a little bit harder. But these shows move us in our splankna (our body’s center of compassion) because we realize that some times, many times, the have nots are trying pretty damn hard to get by and if we would just leave some of the edges of our fields unharvested, if we would leave a few grapes behind—because they are our kin, and we are our brothers and sisters keeper—then we’re all just a little better off—and we’d be moving in the direction of living as a people who are holy like the Lord our God is holy.
Like G-d calls Israel to be Holy, Jesus calls his followers to be perfect, which may sound a bit like we’re watching Emeril Legasse cook: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall be holy like the Lord your God is holy…but I’m gonna kick it up a notch for you!’” And Jesus tackles subjects like retaliation, lawsuits, and forced marches; he takes on charity and lending. And then, knowing it will stoke the guilt fueled, sweaty queasiness, he tells us that we should treat our enemies like our we do our neighbors (the one’s we’re told to love like ourselves) because somehow—and there are days that I just don’t understand how—G-d manages to let most of us see another sunrise, regardless of the quality of our character.
Each one of these is worthy of a sermon all by themselves—but right there at the end Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Even the Gentiles manage to do that! Be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect!”
The Law is given to Israel as they are moving from Egypt to the Promised Land; the commands to be unlike the Egyptians and the Canaanites are meant to demonstrate how Israel is different, how they are un-like the rest of the Nations. Jesus’ teachings point out to his disciples—a people who may be forgetting what it’s like to be free because they’ve been living under Roman occupation for such a long time—he’s pointing out how they are called to be un-like everyone else—how they are not like tax collectors (a group of people it was easy to hate because of their sin) and how they are not like the Gentiles—the Nations—the Romans occupying their land. Jesus says, “It’s easy to be kind to people who are kind to you; it’s easy to be nice when folks are nice—that’s not being different, that’s not being holy. Be kind to people who hate your guts—that’s different; that’s holy.”
John Lewis being interviewed by Krista Tippet in January 2015:
“Well, I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say I love you. But we’re afraid to say, especially in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials, are afraid to talk about love. Maybe people tend to think something is so emotional about it. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong, but love is strong. Love is powerful.
The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest form of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometime and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ’em.”
The call to be perfect, the call to be holy, as G-d our Father is perfect and the Lord our God is holy—these aren’t theoretical things and they aren’t goals we’re never meant to achieve.
John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement talked about a thing called Christian perfection, that was rooted in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s understanding of theosis. Theosis is the transformative process by which the Christian—through living out the teachings of the church and participation in the Sacraments of the Church—becomes more and more like Christ. It is a lifelong goal of sanctification. Christian Perfection is allowing ourselves to be overcome with the desire to love God and love our neighbor, such that those are our only thoughts. In the Eastern Church and in Wesley’s understanding of perfection, both are achievable as we act in synergy with the Spirit of God.
The short of it is this—the Law wasn’t written to set us up to fail; the sermon on the mount wasn’t taught to present us with impossible ways of living just so we would throw ourselves into the wide open arms of grace. Truthfully, G-d loves us exactly the way we are—but we are never meant to stay that way. We are meant to be, we are created to be, holy.