The most recent traditional interpretation of all these sayings where Jesus starts out “You have heard it said”, identifies a matter of the Torah, and goes on to say “But I say unto you” with a fairly strict way of looking at whichever teaching he started out with is that Jesus was saying “Yes BUT” to the Pharisees whom we assume preferred an interpretation which allowed them to feel righteous but skirt the edges of injustice if not actually encourage it.
We used to be pretty hard on the Pharisees, but we are coming to understand that they were generally considered to have a high standard of righteousness. Jesus just wanted to clarify that justice and righteousness should be applied across the board – especially for those who had no power to get it on their own and even if the law appeared to give those with power an “out”.
When it comes to all these sayings I don’t want to minimize the words about lust and divorce and keeping your word. Today, though,
given that someone somewhere has been blocking something to support some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the construction of a pipeline through their lands – a construction project that has been approved and accepted by tribal councils in at least some of those lands;
and given that a frequent comment about all this makes reference to the stated priority of all levels of government for Reconciliation;
and given that Jesus’ very first point is about reconciliation with brothers and sisters, that’s what I keep coming back to.
And this angry breakdown of relationship described by Jesus involves insults and grudges, and courts and judges and it all has financial implications, as well as a huge element of keeping promises, someone wanting what they aren’t entitled to and playing games with loyalties and property and ownership – so it’s all over our Canadian struggle to live up to our ideals when it comes to reconciliation.
What I seen in the way Jesus re-interprets – or as we say these days “intensifies” – each of the points needs us to recognize that there is a whole lot of break down before we get to murder or adultery or divorce or breaking our word.
If we are okay with broken down relationships with such simmering levels of resentment, anger and fury that they could lead to murder then we are not innocent.
And when we blame others for our own desire whether for their or for their stuff,
or treat contracts as a convenience for now and getting out of them as a game to be won,
or when we break our word about honouring commitments (like clean water for First Nations communities), then we can’t claim a moral high ground.
At the end of this chapter, Jesus says “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. And whether because of those words or not, perfection has become a social value. And perfect is not what Jesus means.
Most of us here recognize that we are imperfect. It’s one of the gifts of Christianity – it starts out with a bunch of seriously flawed people and we are able to embrace that reality, at least in church and in theory, today.
But we’re not perfect at it. Most of us, on some level, want to be seen as competent enough, put together enough and, well, perfect enough that we don’t have a sneaking suspicion that others will think we’re perfectly on top of it all and so we will avoid shame and blame and judgement from others.
As long as you don’t murder someone, you don’t look like the kind of person who is so greedy or jealousy or angry that they can’t respect moral boundaries.
As long as you don’t commit adultery, you don’t look like the kind of person whose relationship is in trouble, who looks at others as objects to be desired not people to be respected.
I’m going to ignore divorce because it’s all caught up with ideas of purity and property and that’s a whole sermon on its own because no one would throw out a person because they were obnoxious like it says in Deuteronomy, right?
And as long as we keep our word to the important people, the ones whose opinions matter, who have the power and influence to keep us looking perfect, it doesn’t matter if a few commitments to the less noticeable parts of our life get dropped along the way.
So although you have heard it said that We should be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, I say unto you that we will get angry, we will want what we haven’t got, we will have relationship breakdowns, we will not always be able to do what we said we would do the way we said we would do it, and if we pretend otherwise we are failing ourselves and other people.
Perfection, even in following the teachings of God, which has as its sole aim to protect us from looking bad, from shame, blame and the judgement of others, is not holy. It is the opposite of holy.
As long as we’re updating our understandings, I learned something neat about the Greek word for perfect: sometimes it does not mean what you think it means. Sometimes instead of an idealized degree of being on top of everything, it means “mature” or “complete” so that it is the end goal of a process. And you cannot get to mature if you don’t mature. You can’t skip the process and the process involves going through whatever it takes to move us along.
And if dropping the idea that God wants us to be perfect seems like a step in the wrong direction, I want to be clear that perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence. God knows that we are imperfect – that became clear in the stories that talk about the very beginnings of divine-human relations. God knows that we are imperfect and because of those stories we know that God knows that we are imperfect – that is good news.
God loves us as we are, remember, but loves us too much to want us to stay that way.
When we are faced with situations that create discomfort in us, when we know there is no way to navigate them and feel right and strong and proud the whole time, and when we do it anyways, because it matters, because it is God’s Way, then our righteousness begins to exceed that of the scribes and even the Pharisees and maybe we’ll even get a glimpse of the Kindom of heaven.