Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).
In the previous post, “Perfection Imperfect,” I lambasted the very idea of perfection as an illusion that torments our children and deludes us all. You may rightly ask, “What about Jesus’ teaching, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect?’” (Matthew 5:48)
Recall that he just finished saying anger and insult amount to murder (vv.21-22), pluck out your eye or cut off your hand if they cause you to sin (vv.29-30), and offer your left cheek after someone strikes your right one, the rest of your clothes if they take your coat, and an extra mile for every one they make you walk (vv.38-42). Two millennia later, Flannery O’Connor defended the pedagogical merits of hyperbole as “hitting the mulish reader over the head” with outrageous and grotesque images from which the dazed reader staggers out of tired mental ruts and into unexpected truth. The challenge to be perfect like God should achieve that very nicely.
But Jesus intends more than shock and awe. He offers a notion of perfection to furrow Plato’s brow but change the world. He sets it up with another concussive command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v.44). Expect no special rewards for loving, “for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (v.45). Don’t bore God with “love” that expects something in return. Like God, love simply because that is what you do.
Such love defies the platonic bent for order and precision. One risks falling flat on one’s face and offending friends. Jesus taught it not from a lectern but from a cross, praying for his executioners’ forgiveness with no hope in sight of getting a break, chances of a fair hearing long gone. Can a perfect life end in naked agony?
Maybe Jesus had no designs on reforming the term, “perfect,” uttering it ironically, knowing that we torment ourselves with aspirations to perfection that extend ad nauseam never to satisfy reason or achieve happiness. Meanwhile, we won’t insult the innocent man forgiving his executioners by calling him happy. But shall we call his program perfect?
Yes. If anything is perfect, this love is. Jesus implies that the program of loving our enemies is perfect because it reflects not some abstract, sanitized ideal beyond our grasp but the love of God that relentlessly pursues us, gratuitously forgives us, gets in our business, and cajoles us to join in. Perfection is loving remarkably, getting so caught up in love that you forget to ask what’s in it for you, offering mercy like a fool to people who would never trust you enough to reciprocate or give you the time of day if you needed a hand.
It’s not the ordered life Plato had in mind. It’s not the moderation Aristotle counseled. It’s too full of pathos for Stoics, too guileless for Machiavelli, too slavish for Nietzsche, too short on survival fitness for Darwin, and too altruistic for Rand. Moreover, it just defies common sense. And it is perfect. Go figure.