Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
In a culture of perfectionism and constant striving to be smarter, wealthier, prettier, quicker, healthier, better, this doesn’t sound very realistic.
Because we all know that we can’t be perfect. We know that supermodels are airbrushed, that sports stars use steroids, that the best diet and workout regimen in the world can’t prevent disease and death, that the wealthiest among us don’t always get there on their own merit.
We know very well just what our perfectionist ideals look like and we know just as well that we may never achieve them.
It doesn’t stop us from trying to be perfect, of course. We buy the wonder products, sign up for gym memberships, read the self-improvement books, and put our best self forward on Facebook. When I was reading this text with my friend Emily, she said, “One of the things I struggle with most is reminding myself that I don’t always have to be perfect.”
And it’s not just us individually. We see the imperfections in a society that perpetuates and excuses racism as just another piece of the status quo. We watch helplessly as poverty and homelessness skyrocket with unemployment and unaffordable housing costs. We write letters to our elected officials, praying that maybe this time it will make a difference.
The other stuff Jesus says seems, if difficult, at least POSSIBLE. If someone wants to take your coat, give also your cloak. If someone makes you carry their stuff, carry it farther. Give to everyone who asks you for something. Instead of hating your enemies, pray for them.
It turns into a to-do list. A demanding list, to be sure, but at least to-do lists can be worked on. We can feel like we’re getting somewhere. But “be perfect” is something else entirely. There’s no checklist on the way to perfection. At this point, it seems like a bit of a surprise that Jesus managed to keep even twelve disciples.
We can agree that he has impossibly high expectations, but that doesn’t let us wiggle out from dealing with these commands. Jesus says “be perfect.”
So, what do we do? One option would be to strive to keep every law, every commandment, exactly as it is written. Of course, then we would have to figure out which laws apply in which ways to our lives today. For instance, do we need to keep kosher in our eating habits? I’m not sure I can give up bacon and cheeseburgers, both of which are prohibited by the letter of the law.
But if that isn’t the way to be perfect, what is?
The most perfect thing in the Old Testament was the Tabernacle. It was the place where God promised to dwell among the people of Israel. The whole structure was built to precise specifications. If you’re curious, you can read the descriptions of its construction and furnishings in the books of Exodus and Numbers. The Tabernacle was built to these very particular directions because it was God’s dwelling place, the holiest and most perfect place. It was so important that whenever the Israelites moved during their time of wandering in the wilderness, the Tabernacle led them, and when they stopped to camp, it was set up right in the center of camp.
And then, centuries later, when the Temple was built, also to precise and detailed instructions, the Tabernacle was placed in the innermost room, the Holy of Holies. The Tabernacle was God’s perfect dwelling place, and had to be treated with the utmost respect.
So why does that matter? The Temple is long gone—in fact, the second Temple is also long gone.
“You all are God’s Temple,” writes Paul. “God’s Spirit dwells in you.”
Even when all we see are the imperfections in our lives and our world, the Holy Spirit sees the perfect place to dwell. Just think about the richness of the word “dwell” for a minute. God isn’t passing by, or just dropping in for a minute. God is putting down roots, squeezing in on the sofa, and helping with the dinner dishes. God is here to stay, dwelling and working in each one of us. And, in so doing, the Holy Spirit makes her dwelling places perfect.
In college, I was flying back to school from Spring Break, when there was some bad weather that canceled or delayed many of the flights coming through O’Hare, where my connection was supposed to be made. I was 17 and flying by myself, so I figured that if I stood in line long enough to explain my situation, the gate agent would find a way to get me on a flight that day rather than get stuck trying to deal with an unaccompanied minor in the airport overnight.
As the line snaked along, I noticed a family in line behind me. Mom, dad, and three kids under 12 stood, presumably waiting to make their case to the agent and try to get on the next flight. I originally noticed them because the dad was loudly complaining about everything at the airport, but I quickly realized that their 7- or 8-year-old daughter was staring at me. She smiled shyly at me, and I smiled back.
Emboldened by my friendly response, she asked, “What happened to your arm?”
This is pretty normal for me, so I assured her mortified mother that her curiosity was just fine, and I answered, “Well, I was just born with one arm.” And, since the line was going nowhere, I continued, “This is how God made me.”
She got very quiet as she thought this over, and then asked one more question. “Well, then what’s God doing with your other arm?”
It was my turn to be quiet and think it over. Finally, I said, “I don’t know.”
I don’t always know what God is doing in my life, how God is working through the things that seem so imperfect.
I do know that when God looks around at me, at you, at the gathered saints, at the old faces lined with wrinkles and the young faces smudged with this morning’s snack, at the tired faces waiting for answered prayers and the hopeful faces living in joy, God smiles and says, “Perfect.”