Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Be perfect, therefore

Sometimes it takes a lifetime before an obvious truth that we have somehow not recognized before starts staring us unflinchingly in the face. Unnerving, to say the least, but it wasn’t at first. No, at first, when I finally noticed it, it seemed an interesting and very novel discovery, and I made capital of it in my thinking and writing. It seemed no one around me had noticed this truth either, but once you see it, you wonder how it could’ve eluded you so long. At least, that’s what you might think if you haven’t already filed it in a mental ‘to do’ list, I mean, buried it, since most of the items on my ‘to do’ list usually fade out on their own because of neglect.

What truth am I referring to? Well, in my own words it is this: For a human being, to be ‘perfect’ does not mean to be morally perfect, in other words, ‘he never does anything wrong.’ Instead, it means to look upon everyone, and probably everything, and to love everyone (I won’t say probably love everything) with an equal and impartial eye. Now, what’s so obvious about this truth? And what makes me think it is true in the first place? Well, I am a Christian, which means I believe in, and try to follow, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish rabbi who was proven to be more than a mere human being by his death on a cross and his resurrection from the dead.

There is a curious passage in the gospels where Christ, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, actually commands his followers to be perfect. He says, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ It seems, everyone remembers this verse, but very few remember or meditate on the preceding words, to which Christ draws our attention by his word ‘therefore.’ Being left alone with the ‘Be perfect’ command causes us to fall into some very unfortunate misconceptions, unless we think of Christ’s words as just a suggestion and not a command. In that case, they’re only an interesting proposition to be bantered about without really wanting to know what he means.

When we believe in Jesus Christ and ‘take the Bible at its word’ can we be blamed if we think that he means what he says, that he is asking us to do, and be, the impossible, and resign ourselves to confessing we’re just sinners, unworthy, incapable of living a gospel life, capping it all off with a commitment to go to church regularly and repeat ‘Lord, have mercy!’ endless times to make up for it? But this is, in fact, what most of us do, again, thinking this thought somewhere in the back of our minds, ‘I am a sinner. I can’t be perfect. Only God can be perfect. But I can at least believe. I can have faith that Christ will save me in spite of myself. Now I’m safe, right?’ Meanwhile… 

The obvious truth didn’t take long to discover, except that I never really paid attention to the first part of Christ’s words. ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?’ Well, yes, I’ve read and heard this before…

‘Well, knucklehead,’ I berated myself one day, ‘why don’t you get it? Why are you still judging? Why are you still drawing distinctions between classes of people? It doesn’t matter if the people themselves help you by classifying themselves as this or that, so that you can respond by judging them more precisely, and sorting them into sheep and goats. And even if the classifications were true, that only gives you more reason to subvert them by practicing the unconditional love that is shown by God, you know, the One that Jesus calls his Father? Take another look at what Christ says about being perfect, and stop making excuses. Perfection is not about being good or bad.’

‘What? Perfection is not about being good or bad? You mean I’ve wasted all these years trying to be good, and it doesn’t really matter?’ That’s every man’s reaction to the good news. We can’t help it. It’s our nature. The only God there is appears and he isn’t what we expected. We want him to be just like us. From another angle, it’s just this: Jesus Christ comes to turn all our worlds up-side-down, but we keep turning them right-side-up again as soon as we think his back is turned. We think we can call people whom we approve of ‘good,’ but we’d never, or very rarely, risk calling anyone ‘perfect.’ ‘Nobody’s perfect,’ we like to say, usually in reference to ourselves.

And that’s not what Jesus does. In fact he doesn’t even call himself good, nor does he let others do so. When they try, he as much as says, ‘Don’t call me good. No one is good except God,’ throwing his religious hearers off their chosen roads. No one can be called ‘good’ but God, but if we take his command to be perfect seriously, we can be called ‘perfect.’ Even the apostle Paul refers to this when he says, ‘We who are called “perfect” must all think in this way.’ What way? Well, go back and read all of his epistles, starting with Philippians if you like, for that’s the one I’ve just quoted him from. The gospels point the way. The epistles of Paul put us on it, if we want to go.

So we can be ‘perfect’ but not ‘good.’ I should say that seems a fair bargain. We’ve been let off the hook, then, is that right? To be perfect doesn’t mean to be righteous, to be morally perfect? We just have to love everyone indiscriminately, without judging them? And treating them impartially? If we do that, we can get away with any fantasy we desire? Nothing is morally wrong, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone? Well, yes and no. Since Christ’s command to be ‘perfect’ isn’t addressed only to Christians (there weren’t any yet) but to all men, believers and unbelievers, it can be called universal. In fact, deep inside, everyone knows it’s true. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

For those who believe in God and accept Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah), we can kick the universal command ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ back a notch, to where it begins, even where it springs from, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your soul, all your strength, and all your heart.’ Now we see why we’re commanded to love all humans (and maybe even all creatures). And if we want a word to confirm for us the religious importance of these two commands, we need look no further than, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ So, we’ve been tricked by God to be good by being perfect without knowing it! Very sly! 

To be perfect is nothing other than to love as God loves, and to love the other as much as we love our own. When we do this, not only do we visibly change, but everyone we encounter changes, for the better. We already knew full well what being imperfect means. We’ve spent most of our lives noticing imperfection in others, and more often than not tried to ‘correct’ it by everything from ‘constructive criticism’ to frontal assault, all in the name of love. We know what we’re doing, but worse (or better) yet, God also knows. You know, that ‘our Father who art in heaven’ fellow we’re always asking to do his will ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ Fortunately, we can’t fool him.

All good deeds, all moral acts, all benevolence, all generosity, every good quality that we wish so hard we had been born with but are too lazy to acquire, yes, every good thing can be ours by following the command of Jesus Christ, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

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