“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This saying of Jesus, from the heart of his Sermon on the Mount, might possibly be the single most misunderstood verse in the Bible (although it has stiff competition from “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”). A week ago, during the annual Lay-Cistercian retreat in Conyers, Dom Francis Michael spoke on the question of “What does it mean to be a child of God?” After insisting that it has nothing to do with being part of an exclusive club, where some people are “in” and others are “out,” the Abbot mentioned the phrase I quoted above. The ideas I’m writing here are based on my understanding of his reflections.
We live in a culture where perfection is often understood in mechanistic terms, like a machine that is in perfect working order. A mechanical perfection is devoid of blemish, precise, well-ordered and well-regulated, completely predictable and utterly without deviation. When it comes to flying in an airplane, I for one am happy to know that this kind of perfection exists! But can we really assume that Jesus was speaking of this kind of technical perfection when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount? Sadly, it seems that this has been the overriding assumption in the church over the years. For a Christian to be perfect has long been understood to mean that the Christian is unstained by sin, completely orderly and regulated in his or her thoughts and behaviors, and fully predictable and reliable as a cog in the ecclesiastical machine.
No wonder so many young people decide church isn’t for them. Such a view of the meaning of perfection is not only anti-organic, but it seems lifeless and dessicated. Most of us intuitively recognize that such a blemishless perfection is impossible, and those who try hardest to achieve it often seem to be grim and joyless.
But when I heard the Abbot speak last week, he recommended that Jesus’ instruction to be perfect should always be read in context. And so here it is:
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 5:43-48
Nothing mechanical here. Jesus links perfection with lavish love, the kind of love that sends sunshine and rain to everyone, regardless of how good or bad they are — or whether or not they return the love. The distinction between perfect and imperfect is less about moral stainlessness and more about the ability to rise above our natural inclination to love only those who love us back.
In other words, it’s less about purity and more about hospitality.