20 Feb 2011
“‘Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” (Matt 5:48) In the name …
What does this statement mean: “Be perfect,” just like God is perfect? I’ve heard of baseball pitchers having a perfect game: 27 batters up to the plate and 27 batters back to the dugout. I’ve heard of perfect scores of 10 in Olympic gymnastics. I remember the perfect season of the Miami Dolphins when they won every single game they played in 1972 right through the Super Bowl. These are three rather technical definitions of perfect, and last week we heard from Jesus that a technical kind of righteousness is not enough, that our faith has to be more than that of the scribes and Pharisees and their technical devotion to the letter of the Law. But I can’t think of other kinds of “perfect.”
Like, what is the perfect television show? Not counting Holy Name of Jesus on FCAT because that’s just a given of course. Or how about what’s the perfect book? If you read the newsletter that was e-mailed yesterday or picked-up today, you know that we’re going to be discussing a book about the Bible called in part The Hidden Contradictions of the Bible. Even “The Good Book” isn’t exactly the perfect book. Is there maybe a perfect piece of art? A mother shared the story with her mother of a trip with the kids to a modern art museum. After more than an hour of walking around and looking at all the art to be offered, the mother asked her daughter, “What’s the best thing you saw today?” To which the young girl replied without hesitation, “The exit sign.” Is there such a thing as the perfect piece of music? On Friday night I tried to talk my daughters or even their friends into going with Sharon and me to the Music in Deerfield concert at Smith College. It was going to be a beautiful concert of Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann. If I brought a token high school kid with us, our adult tickets would have gone down from $28 each to $10. But it was like I was asking them to spend their Winter Vacation Week there.
See, perfect is just impossible to describe. Our expectations of perfect are different once we get beyond the technical. If we can’t define the perfect movie, book, art or music, then where does that leave us when we are asked to be perfect like God is perfect? What does perfect like God mean? And that’s not just a rhetorical question either or one that only theologians need to discuss because Jesus says to all those early disciples on the Sermon on the Mount, in other words, to each and all of us who follow Him, that we need to be perfect like God is perfect. Perfect like God is the way we’re supposed to lead our ordinary, everyday lives so it’s a bit of a problem if we don’t know what that actually means.
Now I’ve got to share something boring with you at this point, and no whispering out there about “What about everything else he’s already said.” I was a philosophy major in college, and most every philosophy degree begins with Plato. He was a brilliant Greek thinker who died some 350 years before Jesus. His philosophy was that the perfect did not exist in this world, but that we only saw imitations of the perfect. The perfect was so perfect that it only existed as an idea not as a thing. And before you imagine that this is old and silly, this is the very basis of Modern Art. All of those abstract images that made that little girl look forward to the exit sign are attempts to get to the idea of beauty by going past the images of beauty. And people are paying tens of millions of dollars to own those ideas of the beautiful that don’t show any images at all of the beautiful. That’s perfectly Plato, and it’s also perfectly modern.
But Jesus is not Plato. He’s the opposite of Plato. His perfect is real. This doesn’t define perfect for us, but at least it points us in the direction that the perfect is lived, it’s practiced, it’s what we do. The perfect isn’t so perfect that it can’t be seen. For example, the only other time that the word perfect is used in the four Gospels is in Matthew’s story of the rich young man who wants to become a disciple of Jesus. He’s a good man and Jesus sees potential in him, and invites him to actually join the Twelve. Jesus’ invitation is: “‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor … and come follow me.’” (19:21) The word perfect is starting to get fleshed out. It’s taking on a more practical meaning. It’s extremely difficult, but it is real. We should also know that when Luke tells his version of what we read today in Matthew he changes the word perfect. He must have already sensed the problems with that word. So Luke talks instead about mercy: “‘Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.’” (6:36) This is more concrete than Matthew’s perfect, but it means for him the same things that Matthew is talking about. They both mean: turn the other cheek; love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. (Matt. 5:39, 44) The perfect may not be practical, but it’s definitely not impossible. And this is where we can begin to get some more traction on this idea of the perfect like God is perfect.
These are some of the hardest lessons of Christianity. Let us think about this message the next time we’re in the throes of anger, the next time someone wrongs us, and realize how hard it is to be perfect, to be merciful, to be forgiving like God. Think about perfect charity as we begin to pay our taxes. It’s been on the news that we taxpayers want the government to do a lot of good and helpful things, but we don’t want to have to pay for it ourselves, and thus the deficit. We may not be able to define perfect perfectly, but like Justice John Paul Stevens said on the Supreme Court about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Perfect may be best understood as a goal, as a way of life to aim at, as a kind of person we can try to become. But we should also know that God is called perfect because He is the very definition of merciful and charitable, and Jesus comes into our world to show us it can be real. He forgives us constantly and gives to us constantly. In the name of such a God, we can at least try to become perfect as He is perfect. We may not succeed, but even the effort has its merits by making us better people and our world a better place. For this perfection we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo