I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was six years old and about to enter the first grade. Now remember this was back when kindergarten was half-days and was more about snacks and play time and naps than academic advancement. And yes, it was before the days of ‘Sesame Street’ where little ones learn long before entering a classroom. Still, I had gotten it into my head that I should know more than I did and a few days before the first day of school, I turned to my dad and confessed my fear, “How could I possibly go to first grade? I don’t know how to count to one hundred!!!” I remember he laughed. And then he said, “But, Janet, that’s WHY you GO to school. You go there to learn.” By then it was too late: I had no choice but to take his word for it. Even so, I was none too comfortable going not yet knowing. I wanted ‘perfection’ before I had earned it.
Fast forward some fifteen years. I was a senior in college and had many years of classroom learning behind me now. After three years as a student at a small college in Iowa I had gained a reputation for being a hard worker and a good student. And I would guess by then I was, in fact, skating by on what I had already done.
My instructor asked to meet with me privately. She sat down across from me, handed me my paper which was marked in red, page after page. There was a “B” at the top. And then she said, “This is ‘A’ work, but you can do better, so I’m giving you a B.” She went on to tell me that in spite of my excellent grades, I had gotten lazy and was coasting on my reputation. If I actually expected to go to graduate school, I was going to have to do a whole lot better. (Ouch!) ‘Perfection’ was not yet mine after all.
These are the sorts of stories that always come to mind when I hear that one jarring verse at the end of this week’s reading in Matthew. “Be perfect,” Jesus says now. “Be perfect like God is perfect.” I think of these for they point to that desire for perfection that lives in me as well as my seeming inability to ever really achieve it.
Yes, these are the moments I remember even though in one way, the ‘perfect’ Jesus speaks of now is nothing like the ‘perfect’ of a six year old knowing how to count before she should reasonably expect to. On the other hand? Maybe it is just like that… for we can only expect to achieve the goal Jesus points to now with hard work.
And no, the ‘perfect’ Jesus speaks of now is not something as easily measurable as using the proper form and grammar in a college English paper— although I would say this ‘perfect’ does hold something in common with meeting us where we are and then raising the bar — setting aside what we have already done and not being measured by the standard others alongside us have set.
As we listen to his words today, it seems to me that the ‘perfect’ Jesus speaks of now is the perfection attained in the rough and tumble of life itself. Where we may be beaten and robbed in any number of ways and where we have lived long enough and fully enough to make some enemies. This ‘perfect,’ it seems, is ours to attain only after we have been bruised and bruised others or worse. This ‘perfect’ is achieved when we give more than what is asked for and when we love even in the face of hate. It is not something that is done in any one way: unlike counting to one hundred. And it is something that can always be done better — like my old teacher pointed out to me so long ago. And it is something I’m not certain I’ll ever get quite right for the goal of being ‘like God’ is, no doubt, always just beyond my reach.
So I offer an example now. This afternoon I had made a couple of communion calls and then stopped to visit with a family about a funeral we will share together in later this week. I was circling around the block, finally heading for home and I noticed an older couple out trying to dig their car out of a snow bank. I looked again, and realized I knew them, so backed up my car and climbed out, offering to help. Edythe and Perry are both over 80 and neither one of them should be wielding a snow shovel. I took the shovel from Edythe and began to dig around the back tire of the car until we got it clear. Perry climbed back into the driver’s seat and put the car in reverse. I stood at the front of the car and pushed until he cleared the snow bank. Then he took off on his errand and I stood in the bright February sunshine to visit with Edythe a while longer. It was nothing, really, nothing at all like the examples Jesus offers now and it was really just a few moments out of a busy day. Still, I knew it was the kind thing to do and I was glad I did. Only there was this. The whole time we were working at this together? I was calling Edythe ‘Helen.’ I’m glad she finally corrected me as I would have been mortified later to realize my mistake, but even at that, I was still embarrassed. “Perfect?’ Oh it is so that even when I think I am doing right and good, I am far from ‘perfect.’ Still, that’s no reason to quit trying.
For it is so that in spite of my faltering efforts, perhaps I am still on the journey towards ‘perfect.’ It’s hard to say for sure as the goal is elusive and sometimes seems to be ever shifting and I know too well that I often come up so very short. In the meantime, all I really know to do is to get out in the middle of it all and just keep trying. Oh yes, I know by now that I won’t be able to count to one hundred the first time. And I’m still working on perfect grammar and punctuation. And for certain when it comes to living in this world now sometimes I’ll be more generous than I’m asked to be and sometimes I won’t and sometimes I’ll love in the face of hate and often I’ll find it hard to do so and even when I’m doing ‘good’ I’ll probably still not quite get it right…. liking calling a dear 80 year old by the wrong name. Not just once, but over and over.
Jesus holds before us now God’s perfect standard of love. How humbling and important that is when I think, somehow, I’ve already arrived there and have nothing left to learn — like a certain 21 year old in her first college English class. And what a gift it is to be reminded that this is something we can only learn by trying. And yes, by trying again. Like learning to count to one hundred when you’re six. And as in all things, we probably won’t get it right the first time. In fact, perhaps the ‘perfection’ we are to aim for is partly achieved in our willingness to get out there and try. What do you think?
- What do you think Jesus means when he says we are to ‘be perfect’ as God is perfect?
- How does one ‘love perfectly?’ Have you ever experienced or witnessed it? What examples would you give?
- What would it mean in your life to give more than what is asked of you and to love and pray for your enemies? What does it mean to you to get out there in the middle of it all and keep trying?