The word “perfect” makes me cringe. It conjures images of syrupy-sweet holy card saints, and thin, smiling women with nary a stray (or gray) hair in sight. Perfect is a seed that carries with it the fruits of foreboding and failure, shame and lack. Can anyone ever be perfect enough? Thin enough? Rich enough? Holy enough? Perfect takes my small, sick attempts at finding God and grinds them in the dirt.
Perfect is my enemy. At least, it was – until I stumbled onto the truth that is setting me slowly, but surely, free. I’m called to be perfect – as God is perfect.
And how is God perfect? Does he have a spotless mansion in the nice part of town, with rows of straight, shining teeth? Does he know all the right people, attend all the right events? Does he stay “neutral” in the face of injustice, fearing the fallout of speaking freely? Does he have the right bumper stickers on the right kind of car? (Vegan ones on a Prius, to be sure.)
No. To the rich and powerful, if they’re really honest, God incarnate was a loser. A long haired, refugee, religious minority itinerant street preacher stirring up a lot of nonsense that threatened the status quo of both the religious and political leaders. And he wasn’t even successful in that. He ended up dead, another poor Jew ground into the dirt by Rome. On the surface, he was far from what anyone would have called perfect.
Yet, we are called to imitate him. Why? Perhaps because we need to destroy the slavery of chasing the world’s perfection so we can find the freedom to become perfect in the only ways that matter.
How is God perfect? Look at Christ – perfect in love. Perfect in justice; in the seeking it, the living it, the standing for it. Perfect in compassion and in indignation. Christ was tender with the wounded, weak, and oppressed. He was strong, angry, and spoke the truth to those in power when that power was wielded as a weapon. He took on the scapegoating violence of a world in chaos, rather than pass that violence onto his beloved (which shockingly enough, includes me). Now this is a perfection I can embrace a painful journey of striving toward. This is the dynamic of salvation, and is the dynamic of every loser-turned-hero story in every culture and literary tradition on the earth.
This finally freeing view of perfection illuminated the gospel reading for this Sunday. It starts with a question – who is my neighbor? Jesus tells us who our neighbor is, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. My neighbor is the person in front of me, who is most in need. My neighbor might be poor, or brown, or smell bad, be homeless, or a Muslim, a child whose movements and mumbling make me uncomfortable. Then comes the hammer – Love your neighbor as yourself.
I love myself by wanting good things for myself. Freedom, shelter, safety, food, education, love. How can I love my neighbor if I don’t want and work for those things for her as well? If my neighbor is the person in front of me, most in need, and to love her is to want and work for her to obtain all the good things I want for myself – then is that not the kind of perfection to which we are called?
Yet, our world tells us this is not possible. Even within our church, despite rich teachings on striving for this perfection in our love of neighbor – those in authority hem and haw and wring their hands, too often held bound by the perfection which keeps us slaves of this world’s wisdom. To many, even those hearing this very same Gospel, my neighbor is not the person in front of me most in need, but is some boundary – visible or invisible – some fence or wall erected to keep “them” out and keep “us” in. This is the wisdom of the world, and God tells us plainly that it is all so much foolishness.
The Gospel reading Sunday offers us a vision of a world where we interrupt the cycle of violence by turning it on its head and shaming the wisdom of this world, revealing is true nature for the broken foolishness it is.
Sarah Babbs lives in Carmel, Indiana. She is a full-time mom and also a fertility care practitioner intern at Carmel Family Fertility Services. Check out her blog at fumblingtowardgrace.com