Let us imagine that we are in a Bible study class together, maybe at Baines—since we talked about meeting at Baines for Bible study, at last Sunday’s breakfast. Let us also imagine that we are taking turns leading and congratulations! YOU have been selected to lead today’s study. We have just read together the Matthew passage we are considering for today, “be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.” One of us makes the predicted response, “Yes, we should strive to do better, realizing that we can never achieve total perfection. Only God is perfect.” There is quiet. Some of us shift in our seats. You as Bible study leader are thinking to yourself, “I sure do hate that word should.”
Then, maybe, after some hemming and hawing among us, one of us dares to push back. He or she makes the radical comment: “Be perfect?” And then louder so everyone at Baines hears, “Be Perfect? Isn’t it part of being human that we ARE NOT perfect? Is Jesus setting us up, then, for failure?” Imagine a general sucking in of breath around our table. Kristen, from behind the bar, sets down her coffee pot, and leans in--This is getting interesting! I mean, isn’t that statement heretical? You can’t question scripture, can you? You can’t make Bible study personal, can you?
There is tension among us—We have an un-declared fear that lightning might strike-- for surely if God was sleeping, God is now all eyes and ears! “Jesus setting us up?” Yes, certainly God’s looking down from heaven, shaking his head and wondering, “What’s going on with the folks at Scottsville Presbyterian Church?! “
All heads turn to the Bible study leader, who remember, is you. How will YOU respond? You want to reconsider having a Bible study now?
This is kind of sort of what happened, to a Bible scholar, one of my favorite Bible scholars, Walter Wink, at a church at which he was teaching some 40 years ago now. He eventually chronicled this event in a book that became a best seller. Walter Wink is one of my favorite theologians because he is the first with whom I became familiar, who dared to take our questions, or at least my questions, seriously. Walter Wink believed that Christians have to understand scripture at a personal level, if they are to really own it, and be transformed by it. Today we take that as a matter of course, don’t we? At least in the women’s Bible study, of which I have been a part, we DO question scripture. We sometimes scratch our heads when we read a Bible text, and say, “Oh well, that hasn’t been MY experience.” But back 40 years ago? And probably still today in some fundamentalist circles—You don’t question scripture; that’s like questioning God; that’s like challenging God!
But back to our scripture reading and be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect. Let us take this question seriously as Walter Wink also took it seriously: Seriously, IS Jesus setting us up for failure?
With that question Walter Wink was off and running doing research—going back to the original Greek; Diving into Hebrew and Aramaic lexicons. What he found out was this: As we know the New Testament was originally written in Greek. The word perfect in Greek, is teleios. Teleios has no match in the Aramaic lexicon. Jesus’ first language was Aramaic. He taught and preached in Aramaic. So, if that is the case, Jesus could not have said, “Be perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect.” Again, perfect is not a word in the Aramaic language.
So, what DID Jesus say? Well, he might have used instead, the word we have in Luke. Luke and Matthew and Mark are referred to in scholarly circles as the synoptic gospels.
If you leave here today and you tell someone you meet that today in worship you learned something about the synoptic gospels--my, won’t everyone be impressed! Synoptic. It means that these three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are vaguely similar in their format and in the stories they relay. Luke and Matthew are sometimes so similar that it is scary—we’re talking word for word identical phrases. In fact, it is generally assumed that either Luke had Matthew’s gospel in front of him when we wrote his own gospel, or vice versa. At any rate, Be perfect just as your Father is perfect,” does not appear at all in Mark. In Luke, there is a similar phrase, but with one important difference. Instead of perfect, the word is merciful. Luke says this, quoting Jesus, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Merciful.—Ah, that is something we can aspire to, and something we can actually accomplish, not always, maybe, but sometimes, right?
In fact, be merciful makes a whole lot more sense, than be perfect. I met a woman once who introduced herself to me this way. “Hi, my name is Sally and I am a recovering perfectionist.” Perfectionism can be a disease, like alcoholism, can’t it? You strive to have the perfect home, the perfectly manicured lawn, perfect children, perfect hair and you become a frazzled, and overworked, and an-impossible-to-live-with, nervous Nelly with an eye twitch. And think about this. Striving for perfection, you become totally self-absorbed—what can Eye do to improve myself? What must Eye do to have that perfect hair color, great nails?
Mercifulness, though is all about the other—it’s about how we relate to the other--unconditional love, and forgiveness, generosity, and kindness—Jesus characteristics and character traits that Jesus encouraged in us. So, if we have a choice, and I believe we do have a choice, otherwise why did God give us the synoptic gospels? So if we have a choice, between perfect and merciful, let’s choose merciful, shall we? “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Now I want to take is a little bit further out on that proverbial limb--to talk about something else that may sound heretical. And here we might imagine that if we are still in our Bible study group at Baines, by this time Kristin has actually pulled up a chair and joined us at the table.
Here’s the out-on-the-limb topic for us to consider: Was Jesus perfect? That’s in scripture. Not often, but Jesus is referred to as perfect in Hebrews, Hebrews 5:9. It goes like this: Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation….”
Jesus is often referred to as the Son of God in scripture, and God is perfect, God actually created the concept, right? This is interesting though. Jesus habitually refers to himself not as the Son of God but as the Son of Man. So again, was Jesus perfect?
One of the first sermons I preached was in seminary. In that sermon, which was well received, I made the case that Jesus was not, in fact, perfect. If Jesus was perfect he never experienced shame or guilt; was never embarrassed by something he said or did; never felt redeemed when he made a wrong, right. Never had to apologize because of course he never did anything to apologize for. And he himself never heard three of the greatest words, ever spoken by one person to another, “I forgive you.” If Jesus was perfect, he never truly experienced what it is to be human, right?
There are plenty of recorded instances in scripture, of Jesus doing things that could be read as less-than-perfect. Jesus loses his cool, and turns over the tables of the money changers. There are many scriptural references, mostly in Mark, of Jesus losing patience with his disciples—they are thick as planks when it comes to understanding the finer points of Jesus’ theology. Once Jesus even says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus is corrected by a Samaritan woman when Jesus compares Samaritans to “dogs”—remember that one? And, Jesus trusted Judas so much that he gave him control of the common purse. We know how that turned out!
There is another reason, though, that we have to conclude that Jesus was not perfect. Is it really possible to love a perfect person? I mean, part of what makes a person loveable, is that person’s quirks--A perfect person would be extremely annoying—we call women who feign perfection, prissy, or if a man, Mr. Know it All, or Wisenheimer. Remember Jackie Gleason using that term—Wisenheimer!
As I said, I preached a sermon about Jesus’s imperfections in seminary and it was very well received. Then, several years ago, I was a guest preacher at a church in Powhatan County. The lectionary passage lent itself to a discussion of perfection and I included in that, my own summation that Jesus was not perfect.
After the service, one church member let me have it! Oh my goodness was he upset. Jesus not perfect?! It’s part of Presbyterian doctrine. It’s in scripture. Jesus MUST be perfect. We had lunch together so that he could instruct me in the Christian faith. At times like this I want to make people aware that I have a DOCTORATE in ministry—but that would have been gloating, so, I didn’t.
That man didn’t change my position on Jesus, but he did convince me that some people need a Jesus who is perfect, and all those other omni’s we use when we speak of God—omni present, omnipotent; and so on and so forth.
So here is what I’ve decided about perfection as it pertains to Jesus. We need to make a distinction between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was human. Of course he made mistakes. And that is good. We need a fallible Jesus to remind us what it is to be human; and we need a fallible Jesus so that we can forgive ourselves, when we do wrong. So we messed up? We’re no different than Jesus.
But we also need Christ. Christ is our measuring stick, against whom we measure our own lives. And, Christ is our go-to, all powerful God who understands what it’s like to be human. As hard as it is to wrap our minds around, Jesus Christ is both human AND God. The author of Hebrews was right on, then, when he tells us, Jesus was made perfect in death and in resurrection; Jesus as the Christ has been burnished like bronze; his human image has been polished to such a high gloss, that it shines like silver. The resurrected Christ is better than human, that is to say, Jesus the Christ IS perfect. Until I learn differently, that’s my take on it.
And that concludes our Bible study for today. Let all the people say, Amen