…But I Say To You
“You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” In the Sermon on the Mount, contained in chapters 5-7 in Matthew, Jesus begins to teach his followers what will be expected of them. The strict religious types were so concerned about the behavior of other people that they had come to ignore their own behavior and need for change.
“You have heard that it said that you shall not murder,” Jesus begins, “but I say to you that being angry with your brothers and sisters is just as much a failing.” I imagine a little hush fell on them. Jesus goes on. “You have heard that it was said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that lusting after someone is a similar offense.” Hmmm. “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye’, but I say to you that if someone strikes you on the cheek, you should turn the other cheek.” That’s crazy, they probably thought. But Jesus isn’t finished. “You have heard that it was said that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you that you should love your enemy.” A shocking new ethic that was and continues to be rejected by those who claim to be followers of Jesus.
These teachings of Jesus, right off the bat in his early ministry, establish an expectation that seems impossible for human beings. Jesus even concludes that part of his teaching by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We all know perfectionists and most of us have a streak of perfectionism in us. There are a couple of tough dynamics that come into play when we are trying to be perfect. First, the more successful we are in our pursuit of perfection, the more judgmental we become about others and the more resentful we become. As we think how much better we are in comparison with others, we develop a pretty cold heart. “If everyone else would just work as hard as me, they wouldn’t have so many problems.” With such an outlook, we begin to gloss over our own failings. We think we’ve done all we can do and we begin to rationalize our behaviors. We stop looking at our need for improvement and look only at everyone else’s need for improvement.
Another dynamic in the quest for perfection is that we become very selective in our undertakings. If we can’t be the very best at something, we prefer not to bother with it at all. If I have to be perfect, after all, taking up something I’m not very good at is going to show me I’m not perfect, so I’d really rather just not try. Perfectionists typically get a lot done. But they also become very narrow in their undertakings. They get a little lazy and are very reluctant to try new behaviors because no one is good at something when they are new at it.
You’ve probably noticed that, when Jesus is addressing the Pharisees/Saduccees/scribes as opposed to the tax collectors/sinners, he is talking directly to us. We are the ones who are trying very hard to be good. We are the ones who are following the rules. Our behavior compares pretty darn well to the behavior of many others. “Yes,” Jesus would probably say, “that’s right; but that’s not enough. Your heart is closed off. Your thoughts are not kind. Your spirit is mean. You have lost your compassion.”
Whenever we divide the world into good and bad, light and dark, right and wrong, we have fallen into a pit that Jesus seeks to save us from. For Jesus, there is always more. There is more hope than we can see, more healing than we can imagine, more opportunity for growth, never a place where God cannot reach us and help us. Along with that never-ending hopefulness which Jesus brings, there is a never-ending challenge to our actions, our motives, our intentions. Not only are we to learn to give, but we are to learn to be joyful in our giving. Not only are we to do good, but we are to develop compassion and understanding for those who do evil. God loves us for who we are but is never satisfied with how we conduct our living. God always wants more for us and with us.
Nothing that we do is ever perfectly good, yet we are called to be perfect. Perfection, for Jesus, isn’t a static state or even an accomplishment. Perfection is more the process of seeking to grow than it is the arrival at a particular state. Always Jesus takes me where I am. And always Jesus asks me to go further with him. That is perfection, the following of Jesus rather than standing around making judgments about what others are or are not doing.
Seeing the evil in the world is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing and we are called to see evil and name it every day. But that’s just a starting point. We’re not called to be right. We’re called to be righteous and there’s a big difference. Each and every moment, we are invited to follow Jesus and become more: more pure, more generous, more kind, more understanding, more compassionate, more loving, more like God himself.
The love of God is not given to separate us into a good heap and a bad heap. It is given to move us all forward in righteousness. Thank God for the love he has given you. Ask God to help you follow Jesus more and more. God is never finished with you, or that person you are struggling with.
Robert C. Wisnewski Jr.