Not so perfect

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 20, 2011. The lectionary readings are Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, and Matthew 5:38-48.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the completion, printing, and distribution of the King James Bible. While the King James version has shaped much of Western Civilization, adding majesty and imagery to our prayers, our worship, and our pictures of God, we have also, 400 years later, inherited a few of its problems. In some places the translators guessed at the meaning of a word. In other places they did what people of every age do, and wrote in their own cultural assumptions. Especially since the discovery of scrolls in the Dead Sea area in the 1940’s, scholars have had additional texts to compare, and in many cases words that were ambiguous before have found more definite meaning.

Also, there is the issue (as with a Shakespeare play or a Tallis anthem) of the English words themselves having very different meanings today.

When the King James Bible uses the word, “conversation,” it means behavior, not talk between people. “Meat” refers to any food, not just that from an animal. And “prevent” really means, “precede.” So when Psalm 88:13 says “Unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer PREVENT thee.” The psalm is not asking that prayer might keep God away, but rather, that prayer would come before God, prayer would welcome God in.

My favorite example involves the appearance of unicorns. In six different places the King James Bible mentions unicorns. The translators were not sure about the word in the Hebrew. More contemporary scholars understand it as a wild bull of some kind, with two horns, not one, but for what reason the 17th century scholars chose to use unicorn, no one knows.

And then we come to a word that appears in today’s Gospel. Among the most misunderstood and most unfortunate words we have inherited is used verse 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the King James Bible, but the same use of the word perfect follows in the New King James, the Revised Standard Bible, and the New Revised Standard Bible, and many more.

We know what “perfect” means. When we perfect a draft of a paper or a document, it means that we try to get rid of all the mistakes, all the errors, all the misspellings and typographical mistakes. Perfection usually has to do with the ideal, with what we may agree out loud with our mouths is unobtainable, but all the while on the inside we are still measuring ourselves against some idea of perfection.

But the word used in today’s Gospel doesn’t mean what we usually mean by “perfect.” The word used is the Greek word “teleios.” And while I usually hate to sprinkle sermons with fancy-sounding words, this is one that finds it way into other fields, as in Philosophy, teleology has to do with the end or the final result of something. A teleological argument for creation would say that all of nature is aiming and building toward an end, and this supports the argument for a creator who is behind that design.

More than “perfect,” the word has to do with reaching maturity, with being whole or complete. One writer (David A. Duke) uses the image of an acorn to explain this word. A “perfect” acorn, in this biblical sense, would not be the biggest acorn on the tree, nor the prettiest, nor the meatiest (except, perhaps to a squirrel). Instead, the “perfect” acorn in the sense Jesus is using the word, would be a full-grown, leafy, majestic oak tree. The “perfect” acorn would be the acorn that has grown to full adulthood, has grown beyond its “acorn-mind,” has grown into something that is beautiful, and helpful, and useful.
Eugene Peterson’s version of the scriptures, called “The Message” makes this especially clear. He translates and paraphrases verse 48 not as “Be perfect;” but rather, Peterson hears Jesus say: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

The kind of perfection Jesus encourages us towards is related to God and the generosity of God. “Be whole as God is whole, be complete as God is complete.” At the end of it all, there’s the culmination in Jesus’ saying, “Be like God. Be generous like God. Surprise other people with that generosity and amazing things will happen.”

This famous saying “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” has nothing to do with accepting abuse or acting like a doormat for others. As many commentators have observed, to be hit on the right cheek in the Roman world would have normally meant that someone used the back of their hand to smack you, so it would not only be a violent act, but also—if not more so—an insult. It meant that the person striking regarded you as lower than himself or herself, as though you were inferior—in that world, a slave, a child, a woman. Hitting back would just continue the cycle of violence. Offering the other cheek, however, is a statement: “Ok, hit me again, but this time, you have to view me as an equal.” It would change the power dynamic.

And in the other example, a rich person takes a poor person to court. If they sue for your outer garment, give them your undershirt as well, so you’re standing there naked. It won’t shame you, but will shame the other person who has gone to such lengths to get money from a poor person.

And a similar thing is meant with the situation of a Roman soldier asking someone to carry his equipment. There were cultural rules and expectations for this sort of thing. So by carrying the equipment further, you would not only startle the soldier, but break the cultural code and risk his embarrassment. You would make him look foolish.

N.T. Wright suggests that these stories are a snippets, almost cartoons. Jesus is saying through these images, “imitate God.” “Be like God.” God is generous beyond what anyone would expect, so be generous with each other, be larger than your usual self.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, holy men and woman went into the Egyptian desert looking for God and looking for themselves. Some probably went looking for what they thought might be perfection, but when confronted with their own internal demons, when confronted with the teachings and sayings of older, wiser hermits, they soon came to understand that the way to perfection is through imperfection. The way to wholeness is by admitting one’s brokenness.

There’s a great story about a desert father called Abba Moses. It seems that a brother living in community in another part of the desert had committed a fault and a kind of council was called. The brothers all wanted Abba Moses to go, but he refused. Finally, someone sent a messenger to him and said, “Abba Moses, please come. Everyone is waiting for you and for your opinion on the matter.” So Abba Moses got up and went, but he took a leaking jug filled with water, and carried it with him. The other monks came out to meet him. They saw the leaking jug and asked, “What is this, Father!” Abba Moses looked at them and said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the faults of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.

We have seen that the King James Bible is not perfect. Those who have tried to live a Christian life before us were not perfect. We are not perfect, but the really good news today is that we’re not called to be perfect. If anything, we’re encouraged to admit our imperfection and to be generous in allowing for the imperfections of others. This generosity leads to wholeness. It leads to maturity. Such generosity helps us to grow into something like giant, beautiful, long-lived well-loved trees.

In the final chapter of Revelation there is an image of the holy city, the New Jerusalem. There is a river of the water of life. The Lamb of God presides. And there is a tree of life, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

We are those leaves, imperfect, but growing, changing, developing in generosity, all under the watching care of God. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to be perfect.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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