Rev. Stu Smith 3-21-21 at CCU in Anaheim.
The fifth through seventh chapters of the Book of Matthew make up the Sermon on the Mount. Where much of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—describe the life and actions of Jesus, that section of Matthew is almost exclusively made up of teachings attributed to Jesus. Whole books have been written on those three chapters.
The Sermon on the Mount contains the beatitudes; its where Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the earth and the light of the world; the Sermon on the Mount is where Jesus tells us to love our enemies; it contains the Lord’s Prayer; it where Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, and to build our house on a solid foundation.
I find myself referring to the Sermon on the Mount frequently when constructing a Sunday talk. Such has been the case over the past few weeks.
One verse that I’ve run across repeatedly is the last verse of chapter 5. Jesus is well into his sermon when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
For someone whose basic assumption is ‘there’s something wrong with me’, ‘be ye perfect’ is like fingernails on the chalkboard. That’s met with all sorts of resistance. I can’t be perfect, there’s something wrong for me.
But there it is. Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Like any other scripture, that can be seized upon and weaponized. It can be made a millstone around one’s neck. When we expect perfection of ourselves or others, setting someone up for failure.
As I said before, I’ve run across that verse numerous times. What got me really thinking about it was hearing Michael Caine on Youtube read the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling.
I’ll share a little bit about the poem because it has an interesting history. In 1895, a Scotsman named Leander Starr Jameson led a mercenary army to try to overthrow the Boer government of South Africa. Even though the coup failed miserably, Jameson became a beloved hero in Great Britain. He was so revered that Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem ‘If’ to commemorate his character.
It’s a profoundly inspiring poem. I’d like to share it with you:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
As I read that poem, I found it so moving. It describes such laudable character traits: “trust yourself when all men doubt you”, “being hated, don’t give way to hating”, “meet Triumph and Disaster…just the same”. It describes something very close to perfection.
Then it ends by saying that if you can do all that, you’ll be king of the world. But more than that, you’ll be a man.
What I can’t help thinking is, “Wow. That’s what it takes to be a man?” If I fall short of all of that I can’t call myself a man, according to Rudyard Kipling?
It feels a lot like ‘be ye perfect’.
Actually, perfection seems to be stressed more in Eastern religions than in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Buddhism offers lists of ‘perfections’, that is qualities that one must develop to perfection in order to attain enlightenment. Theravadin Buddhism offers a list of ten perfections that must be attained in order. But since Mahayana Buddhism only has six, let’s look at those.
It starts with Dana, perfection of giving. Perfect giving is selfless giving. There are no strings attached, no expectation of thanks or reciprocation. This unencumbered giving allows us to develop the attribute of non-attachment.
Next comes Sila, perfection of Morality. This deals with selfless compassion and the ability to respond correctly to all situations without having to consult a list of rules.
Third is Ksanti, Perfection of Patience.
Ksanti literally means “able to withstand.” There are three dimensions to ksanti: the ability to endure personal hardship; patience with others; and acceptance of truth.
Next comes Virya, the Perfection of Energy. Virya comes from an ancient Indian-Iranian word that means hero and is the root of the English word virile. It corelates closely to Charles Fillmore’s Power of Zeal.
So virya is about making a courageous, heroic effort to realize enlightenment.
Fifth is Dhyana, Perfection of Meditation. Dhyana is a discipline intended to cultivate the mind. Dhyana also means “concentration,” and in this case, great concentration is applied to achieve clarity and insight.
Lastly come the Perfection of Wisdom, Prajna.
In Mahayana Buddhism, perfect wisdom is the direct and intimate realization of sunyata, or emptiness. Very simply, this is the teaching that all phenomena are interrelated, without self-essence or independent existence.
The teaching is that a student attains one perfection, then proceeds to the next and the next, until finally reaching Prajna.
In Hinduism, perfection is represented by dharma, which signifies moral and spiritual righteousness. Dharma is personified by a god of the same name.
Here’s an excerpt on perfection from hinduwebsite.com.
‘Another important idea which you find in Hinduism is that perfection comes from inner purity. You are perfect when you are pure, and vice versa. Your soul is already perfect and pure. It is hidden in the body, just a statue is hidden in stone as a possibility. Therefore, perfection is not something that you create out of nothing, but a state that you unravel by peeling away the imperfections and impurities that are present in you, just as a sculptor chips away unnecessary stone to sculpt an image.’
All of the major religions, in one way or another admonish us to strive for perfection.
Such was the case with a group of monks who were responsible for transcribing copies of the bible…
The entire monastery was devoted to the task, and each day would all wake up and say their prayers before a humble breakfast and then they begin work. On the anniversary of creating his thousandth copy of the bible since he first joined the monastery two decades earlier, brother Gray asks the abbot if he could go and make his next copy using the original in the vault as reference material. Since they’ve just been making copies of a copy for centuries, the abbot agrees and brother Gray descends into the vault where he is given access to the oldest existing copy of the bible they have. They want to make sure they have as perfect a translation as possible.
Days pass, none of the other monks are particularly concerned as brother Gray was known to be a perfectionist and was recognized as one of the best in his craft. After another week though they become anxious as nobody had really seen him since he went into the vault.
When the abbot finally went to check on him, he heard a gutteral sobbing, relentless and distraught. He pushed open the door and found brother Gray lying face down in a heap on the floor, pages of the bible scattered all around. He rushed to his side. “Brother, whatever is the matter? We’ve been so worried about you. What’s wrong?”.
Brother Gray pushed himself upright, wiped away the tears from his eyes and grabbed the abbot by the collar. “The word was ‘Celebrate'”
Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect. And that’s maybe the point.
As much as the world’s religions admonish us to be perfect, they also offer a way out. In traditional Hinduism and Buddhism, you get as many lives as you need to get there. And the Jesus message is all about redemption. This story is from Luke 5:
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
And Jesus message was that we all need work, that we all belong in that latter group. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That wasn’t about attacking us for being imperfect, but rather letting us know it’s okay to be imperfect. Abraham-Hicks affirms that message with the adage, “You can’t get it wrong because you can’t get it done.
So, what is our relationship to perfection? What should we take from those words attributed to Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, “be ye perfect”?
There are two competing principles. The first is that we don’t want to argue for our limitations. We don’t want the idea that we can’t be perfect become an excuse for not striving to be better. Sometimes, that’s called letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We don’t want to become complacent and self-satisfied.
Also, in theory, we want to leave room for our perfection. I believe that perfection is beyond my reach, but I believe I need to stay open to the idea of being perfect. I don’t want to hold it an arm’s length away just because I’m unwilling to accept it. (Let me make it clear that I realize I’m nowhere close at this point.) I’m in no danger of ascension.
The other principle, and I mentioned it earlier, is accepting that perfection is a lifelong, or perhaps, a lives-long endeavor. While we don’t want to close ourselves off from the potential of perfection, we need to give ourselves some slack. When Jesus told Peter to forgive others seventy times seven times, he was including self-forgiveness.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I went out with this girl named Debbie. One time she was telling me about her brother-in-law being a bowler, and shared with me that he had a 300 average. Many of you realize that 300 is a perfect game in bowling. A 300 average would mean that every game you bowl is perfect.
When I pushed back on her claim, she thought that I was disrespecting her brother-in-law. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t saying that he didn’t have a 300 average, I was saying that nobody did.
That’s true not only in bowling but life in general. Nobody has a 300 average.
So, what do we make of Jesus admonishing us to ‘be ye perfect’? How does a Buddhist approach the six or eight or ten perfections? What relationship does a Hindu have to dharma? It’s a seemingly unattainable goal.
I’ll close with this illustration. If you ever shoot a bow and arrow or throw darts, you always aim for the bull’s eye. You probably don’t expect to hit the bull’s eye every time, but that’s where you aim.
I’m always amused by contestants in competition shows who say ‘I just want to make it to the finals’. Seriously? Nobody wants to just make it to the finals. If that’s your mindset, that’s as far as you’re going to go.
Whether in a game or in life, we aim for the bull’s eye. We aim for the bull’s eye in hopes of getting close. And the more we practice, the closer we get. Every once in a while, we’ll accidentally hit it. But most times we won’t.
Aim for the bull’s eye. Go for that 300 game. Reach for perfection. But if you fall short, don’t allow yourself to be discouraged. We’re just works in progress. Nobody’s perfect.