In the words of Jesus we are called to “be perfect as our Heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This has been a real sticking point for many people and it is one of those things Jesus says which the general Christian public has decided to cast aside as not being practical. He must not have actually meant be perfect, right?
I believe that he did mean that we are to be perfect, but perhaps not in the way you might be imagining. Jesus gives this little one liner during his famous sermon on the mount. In this sermon he gives a whole bunch of instructions about how we are supposed to live our lives, and he doesn’t mince words. This is the same part of Jesus’ teaching where a bunch of other stuff people pretend he didn’t say can be found.
For instance: turn the other cheek, do not accumulate wealth, and always give in secret. How many churches actually teach that you shouldn’t take any credit for the charity you do? Most churches I know are filled with nice bronze plaques that say who donated each pew.
So, why do we turn a blind eye to the sermon on the mount? Why do both liberal and conservative churches pretend Jesus didn’t say you can’t be rich and a Christian? Because we don’t want to do hard things, that’s why. It’s much easier to simply say the creed and put a Jesus fish sticker on your car than to actually be perfect, as your God is perfect.
Now, most people will say, “but it is literally impossible to be perfect.” That’s the main argument I hear people make. And I get it, I really do. It IS impossible to be perfect in the sense that we don’t make any mistakes. That kind of perfection is not possible in this life. We all make mistakes. But Jesus isn’t calling us to live lives of perfect job performance. He isn’t calling us to build perfect houses or cook perfect meals. He is calling us to live perfect lives. And this means having perfect intentions.
We can and must live with perfect intentions. Hoarding wealth in a world full of poverty is not a mistake, it is a choice. Allowing violence and retributive justice to prevail in our society is not a mistake, it’s a choice. Wanting your name to be publicly honoured for your good deeds isn’t something you do accidentally, it’s a reflection of your inner condition. So it’s true, we can’t be humans and not make mistakes, but we also need to take responsibility for our inner condition and the actions which flow from it. To have perfect intentions is what it means to be Christian.
Now, many people will still take offense to this, even after distinguishing the different kinds of perfection we discussed above. They will say that because of original sin we are not able to be morally perfect. That we are cursed to be sinful creatures all the days of our lives. To answer this I would like to turn to my favourite moral theologian, Pelagius.
Here is a quote from Pelagius’ letter to Demetrias, a young and very rich Roman girl who wanted to dedicate her life to Christ.
Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and the conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues, in case it may be of little or no profit to him to be summoned to pursue ends which he has perhaps hitherto assumed to be beyond his reach; for we can never enter upon the path of virtue unless we have hope as our guide and companion.
The idea that we are unable to live holy lives because we are sinful in our nature is a shameful and dangerous doctrine. Why did Jesus call us to live virtuous lives in so many places if he did not believe it was possible for us to do so? Without hope the battle is already lost. When people are taught that moral perfection is beyond their grasp they never even try.
This was one of the major complaints the Pelagians made against those who followed Augustine’s teaching of original sin. Rather than arguing against them in philosophical terms, Pelagius and his followers simply pointed out that the mainstream “orthodox” Christians were living sinful lives of wealth and political power. They never even took the sermon on the mount seriously, they never had any interest in actually living like Jesus told them to. They were content to be Christians by name rather than by deeds.
In fact, Demetrias (the young rich woman Pelagius wrote his letter to) never accepted his teaching and became an opponent of Pelagianism and a prominent political figure instead. She wasn’t able to accept that she had both the ability and the responsibility to live a life of service and humility. She did what most Christians have done throughout our long and questionable history – she decided she would continue to pursue wealth and power.
No one wanted to hear the truth Pelagius was speaking and that’s what happened to Jesus too. He taught something that required a real change in priorities and lifestyle and people weren’t into it. They just wanted to call themselves Christians, they didn’t actually want to BE Christians.
What kind of Christian are you? Are your intentions perfect? Are you satisfied with being a Christian by name only or do you feel called to act out your faith by the living of your life?
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