My 7th grade home economics teacher called me a ‘perfectionist.’ And while I do not remember her using whatever occasioned this remark as a teachable moment, it was clear that she did not mean it as a compliment. Indeed, while I will never be able to understand her intent when she spoke so long ago, I have not forgotten it. Without a doubt, she saw something in me which could, in fact, potentially stand in my way of being and doing in the best ways possible for me. For while the barest definition of the word is simply ‘one who will not settle for any thing less than perfect,’ use of this word normally conjures up someone who is uptight and careful in a way that almost paralyzes. Perhaps this characterized me at the age of 13. At least when I was trying to sew a straight seam. Perhaps sometimes it still does.
And so it seems I cannot help but be drawn to the final words of this week’s Gospel where Jesus demands ‘perfection’ from his followers. Indeed, I can recall at a very young age feeling dismayed when I read this passage, for I knew that standard was far out of my reach. As it is for all of us. And given this, while I may never understand why it is that Jesus set the bar so impossibly high, still I find myself returning to what is offered in Jesus’ teaching right before these final words. For even though in the specific examples offered, the standard is still not in the least attainable, at least here we get a clue as to the realm in which perfection is demanded:
- In times and places when we are confronted by evil.
- Where others are making entirely unreasonable demands upon us. Or would seek to inflict violence upon us. Or would work to take what is rightfully my own.
- When we are confronted by profound need.
- And, yes, by seeking to love those who are our enemies.
No, it is no easier to obtain ‘perfection’ even when we understand where Jesus would have us direct our energy, but at least now we know where to focus. In places of conflict and struggle. In times when our hearts are broken or afraid. In addressing those who have hurt us or who would hurt us.
And so as I am called again to consider the meaning of these challenging words for myself and those with whom I minister, I have found myself standing still in the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. For it is easy to hear Jesus’ words now as a call to be some kind of holy pushover in the face of evil, when in fact, each and all of these behaviors are calls to exhibit great strength and in turn, build strength and resilience within us. If you have not read any King’s words lately, I would urge you to turn to his teaching on nonviolence. In particular, I have before me a speech he delivered to the YMCA/YWCA at the University of California on June 4, 1957 when he said in speaking of the need to teach about nonviolence:
We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is non-aggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.
And this a little later:
Another thing that we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding… The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.
( p. 12 in “The Power of Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington,)
I have not found evidence yet that Martin Luther King turned to the particular passage that is before us now, but it all comes together. And yes, it seems to me it takes a great deal more strength to ‘turn the other cheek’ for the sake of the ultimate redemption of the one striking than to strike back.
Truth be told, I am of course nowhere near there yet. Not even close. But I am taking in the words of Jesus this week in this way. I am remembering this as a sign of strength, not weakness. And specifically, I am pausing in the memory of those who have hurt me. I am allowing myself to remember the pain — however trivial it may seem in light of the suffering so many others endure. And I am praying for her. For him.
It’s a start, it seems to me. It is movement in the right direction. And though perfection may never be mine to achieve, I am finding even this small thing taking away the paralysis that the need to get it exactly “perfect” sometimes imposes on me. For this perfection does not rely on me, but on the one who went to the cross for me, for you, for the world. And perhaps this is at least a shadow of the “perfection” Jesus demonstrated in his living and suffering and dying in our behalf. For that, of course, is our best and truest example of what it is to be ‘perfect’ as our heavenly Father is perfect.
- How do you hear the words of Jesus today? What does it mean to you to ‘be perfect?’
- How does the work and writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. resonate with the words of Jesus? I have offered one example above. Can you think of others?
- How do you find yourself called to ‘turn the other cheek, give more than asked of you, walk the second mile, give to the one who begs from you, or pray for the one who persecutes you?’ Are you able to see these responses as signs of strength and not weakness? Why or why not?
- Finally, do you see how any of these responses might lead to the ultimate redemption of the other as Martin Luther King, Jr. would have it? Why or why not?