July 2019


“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”

Matthew 5.48   (ASV)


In my thirties, I walked along a magical beach.  I stooped to pick up a lovely shell; the kind that US poet Mary Oliver celebrates as part of God’s contemplative plan when she writes: ‘All things are inventions of holiness’, in her poem ‘The Wren from Carolina’.  Then I noticed a tiny flaw in that shell.  And I threw it away.  

My companion, who was wise to me, quickly picked it up again and held it aloft.  It was truly beautiful.  He enquired, gently: ‘Was it not fit for purpose?’.  We laughed, but in that moment I knew I was in trouble.  I would sooner reject the beauty of the world than accept imperfection.  Since then, thanks to silent prayer, on some days I can see the remarkable beauty not just in the flaws of the world around me, but in my own.  On others, I manage to be a perfectionist about not being a perfectionist... 

Luckily, God doesn’t work this way.  Yet this makes it all the clearer that this month’s saying, from the Sermon on the Mount, is curious.  Much of the Bible’s teaching depends on the notion that we are imperfect.  No one needs moral and spiritual guidance unless they are in some sense lost.  To aspire to perfection is even counterintuitive to the Christian theology of Grace.  Without transgression there need be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness, no mercy.  Perfection widens the gap between us and God.

Arguably, this verse is not about us at all, but about Him.  Jesus knows, because of his own humanity, that our capacities are limited.  He urges us to greater connection with the Father’s limitless perfections.  We should be inspired - and excited - by the boundless possibilities of His awesome love.  The word 'perfect' here is a translation of the Greek teleios.  Donald Senior suggests it’s best read as 'complete' and as part of God’s ‘indiscriminate graciousness’ in the context of love for enemies specifically; a completeness then that comes from the very wounds we bear.  In finding a capacity to love beyond our own limits, we model ourselves upon God, literally becoming his branches (John 15: 5).  We learn our interdependence, not just our dependence, for what Vine can bear fruit without these?  When we emulate a love we cannot fully even understand, we participate in the very mystery of God (Isaiah 55: 8-9).