One of the happiest times of my life was the five years I spent as a teacher in a large Anglican high school in England. It was wonderful to be able to help young men and women grow and mature into adulthood. One of the greatest challenges though was not the children but their parents! It was a very academic school, and some children were put under an awful lot of pressure to perform by parents who made a tremendous fuss if their child dropped a grade. It could have a really crippling effect on a child to have every piece of work examined forensically by a judgmental parent. And a child could begin to feel that her parents’ love was dependant on how well she performed at school.
In our Gospel reading today (Matt. 5:38-48) there is a sentence which sounds horribly like some of those demanding parents: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)
“Be perfect? How can I be perfect?”
For many people – and maybe you are one of them – that is how they see God – as some kind of demanding parent, forensically analyzing everything we do – noting every mistake, and demanding that we perform perfectly.
This view of God, which is very pervasive and deep-seated, makes us feel deep down that we will never really be acceptable to God because of the mistakes we’ve made, or because of the sort of person we are. We feel flawed, or broken, or damaged, or messed up, and can never be worthy of God’s love. It can have a crippling effect on us.
The dictionary defines ‘perfect’ as “entirely without flaws or defects: flawless.”
Be perfect, says the scripture – be entirely without flaws or defects – flawless – help!
When I was a teenager I was not interested in Christianity and rarely went to church. But when I try to trace the story of how I came to faith, I always remember, I think I was about 16 or 17, being powerfully moved by hearing read the parable of the Prodigal Son. (Lk 15:11-32) Here was a young man who seriously messed up his life by some very wrong choices. He’d really gone to a very far country. When he made that decisive choice to turn around and come home, he was expecting his Father to punish him with a menial job – and his every move monitored. One step out of line – and you’re out. Every mistake would be noticed and punished. He would never get over his big mistake – and he’s be crippled by it. What really moved me in the story though is that was not how his Father acted. Rather, he ran out to greet his lost son, threw his arms round him, and showered him with love and joy. Yes he’d fallen, yes he’d made a big mistake, but his Father picked him up gently and loved him back to life.
I thank God that this is the image of God which has most guided my own life and growth into adulthood.
This is what God is like, and that is reflected in the true meaning of the phrase “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” For the word translated as perfect is the Greek word teleios. And what that really means is “whole, complete, mature.” Be whole, be fully and completely the you we are called to be. Be mature! I like the New English Bible translation best of all, and that is, “Grow up!”
The word ‘perfect’ in English sounds static. You either are perfect or you are not. In the Greek of the New Testament it has a more dynamic sense of something you become.
So “be perfect” is more “Grow up and mature, and become fully and completely the Karen, Peter, Jane, Geoffrey you were made to be.”
That word teleios isn’t used much in the Gospels, but it’s used again in Luke’s Gospel in the Parable of the Sower. (Lk 8:5-15) You’ll remember the sower sows the seed and some fell on the path, some on the rocks, some on the thorns, and some on good soil. The seeds that fell among the thorns, we read, are the ones who hear, but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life – and so “the fruit does not mature.” (Lk 8:14) The same word, teleios, is used here. The fruit does not become “perfect/mature.”
I think it is a great image for what God wants for us, too. God longs for us to reach our full potential. Be perfect: become that wonderful person I created you to be, in whom I delight. When God looks at us with loving eyes he sees the person who we can become. He longs to bring the best out of us – longs for us to become fully who we were created to be. Fully mature, like seed sown on good soil, putting down our roots into the life of God, and truly living life abundantly.
When we make mistakes, when we fall – when we get choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life and make the wrong choices – God does not judge us harshly, but gently picks us up and puts his arms around us and forgives us and sets us on the road again that leads to life and maturity. We become mature by living life fully – embracing life – taking risks – making mistakes and learning from them. That is how we become perfect.
“Be perfect.” These are not words from a harsh task master – but words from the loving heart of God.
But they are also hugely challenging words. They challenge us to ask some hard questions about our lives so far.
God longs for us to reach out and grasp the fullness of life which he has prepared for us. And he loves us too much to allow us to settle for anything less.
Living the Christian life demands that we be very honest with ourselves and acknowledge where we have compromised our ideals, where we have made choices which are not good, where we have settled for second best – or even given up.
In what areas of our lives are we like the seed sown among the thorns? Where are we being choked by cares – filled with anxiety and fears, and not trusting in the love and care of God?
Where are we being choked by riches or pleasures? When have I made choices with these desires in mind, rather than the determination to live into the full dignity of being children of God.
It is never too late to make a new beginning – to take stock of my life so far – and to grow up.
I love these words of Robert Browning:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.
Or what’s a heaven for.
So perhaps ask yourself today. How might God be encouraging me to reach out beyond my grasp? Reach out for the life which God has set before me. With St. Paul, forget what lies behind and strain forward for what lies ahead. (Phil. 3:13)
Reach out to become the man or woman God has wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s own image.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
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