“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Argh! I knew it. Underneath Jesus’ expansive, merciful heart lay a trigger-happy moral cop itching for us to straighten up and fly right – to be as morally perfect as God… or else!
The word “perfect” used in this week’s lectionary text (Matt 5:38-48) is perhaps the most toxic of all religious words for those who live fractured and imperfect lives – especially for those who have been beaten down so long that they can’t seem to do even the most basic things of life without messing up, over and over and over.
In a flourish of prophetic insight, Alcoholics Anonymous wisely came out from the Oxford Group because one of the tenets of the Oxford Group was a zero-tolerance policy for failure. They demanded “perfection” of those in recovery. This proved to be debilitating to recovering alcoholics who need a huge safety net of grace and countless second chances, not a “one-and-done” policy.
Nothing is more toxic to those who suffer from addiction (all of us) than the standard of perfection. None of us can live under that kind of pressure. Failure and imperfection are not the evil we imagine them to be. They are built into the fabric of life itself. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen famously said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The word, “perfect” that Jesus uses is the Greek word telios. It is not a moralistic word. It means “complete” or “whole.” It has to do with the final end or goal of something. It forms the root of our word for telescope. Jesus uses this word in the context of a larger teaching (Matt. 5:38-48). Jesus is telling us that the epicenter of the law is for us to “love our enemies.” Yes, the purpose of the law is to lead us to this place… to our enemy who completes us or makes us whole. That is why we are to love our enemy. Can you see? We can’t be fully who we are without our enemies. Perfection is not about some arbitrary standard that God demands. It’s about God wanting us to be fully human, and God knows that our enemies hold the key to our humanity.
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He is revealing perhaps the deepest secret of all: that we are mirror doubles of our enemies. We are more alike than different. Bloods and Crips, Palestinian and Israeli, black and white, men and women, gay and straight: we are mirrors of each other. We complete each other.
Imagine if we lived as if this were true? It takes all the moral superiority out of it. I love my enemy not because I am better or higher or morally superior, but because I am incomplete without my enemy.
Enemies cannot be loved from a place of moral superiority. Loving our enemies is born of humility and leads to humility. In the end, our enemies are God’s invitation to wholeness. Telios. So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
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