God expects us to be perfect. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”(Mt. 5:24)
“But that’s impossible,” we protest. “We’re only human.” Really?
First, let me state what, in my opinion, Jesus does not mean.
I was raised by two perfectionists. My dad was an “excel perfectionist.” One day I was golfing with him and he was muttering about his game being off. He worked hard at his golf game and had won the county tournament one year. He got his name in the paper by making a hole in one the day after I was born.
But it bothered me that he was not having a good time, so I asked him, “Do you ever play a round of golf just for the fun of it?”
He replied, “I believe that if God gives you a gift, you should develop it as well as you can.”
I didn’t say anything more. I remembered a few years earlier when he had taken me to see a Wisconsin Badgers football game in Madison. As we walked into the stadium, I remembered the thrill of seeing 70,000 fans, hearing the band and watching the crazy students and their antics.
Towards the end of the warmups and calisthenics, my father turned to me and said, “Some day you’ll be playing out there.” High expectations. The problem was that I would grow up to be a maximum of 5’8″ tall and 140 lbs. I started every game at quarterback for my junior high school team and we lost every game.
I wasn’t as good at sports as was my father. He was gregarious. I was shy. He could harmonize by ear. I needed help tuning my guitar. He was a hard act to follow.
My mother was a perfectionist in another way. She was a “don’t make any mistakes” perfectionist. She didn’t strive to win the Superbowl. She just didn’t every want to make the fumble that lost the game. She often said that instead of being a fourth grade teacher, if she had it to do over again, she would be an accountant. Numbers behave themselves. When you are balancing the books, it’s either right or wrong. You can be perfect. Control was an extremely important value.
It was this double perfectionism that I carried into adulthood, and it carried me a ways down the road of life. I always got a job, because I got good recommendations from my previous employers. I didn’t get a girl pregnant, and never was arrested for DUI because I never got drunk. I eventually earned a Doctor of Ministry degree and raised two children who are now decent, responsible adults.
But at the same time, I always felt like I had failed. I lived up to my mother’s perfectionism better than my father’s.
So what am I to do with Jesus’ statement that I had to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, when I couldn’t even live up to my earthly father’s standards?
I struggled with God’s perfectionism until I watched Jesus closely. Jesus couldn’t care less if I won the county golf tournament or could sing on pitch. He didn’t seem impressed by CEOs who made billions of dollars or by religious leaders who knew how to put heavy burdens on their people but wouldn’t lift a finger to help them bear the load. And he didn’t seem to worry about making mistakes or getting low ratings in public opinion polls.
For Jesus, the one perfection he cared about was perfection in love. “Do you understand what I have done to you,” he asked his disciples on the night he washed their feet. “Love each other as I have loved you.” And he summed up the whole law by saying we should love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves.
And if we protest that human nature is incapable of loving like that, he might reply, “No, human nature, the way God created it, is capable of loving that way when that nature is oriented toward God, when God is master and shepherd and lord and father, etc. and people stop trying to pull this love thing off on their own.
Our created nature is to love. . .God and everyone. You couldn’t tell it by the way we behave, of course, but that doesn’t change who we are. When you look at it that way, all sin is not loving like we have been created to love. Period.
During Lent we are simply prodigals trying to get back to the home where we are loved and are thereby empowered to love even resentful siblings.