The impossibility of perfection

Epiphany 6 – 2017

Matthew 5:13-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who demands perfection, but who overlooks all our faults. Amen.

Most of us will have been astounded by the information coming out of the Royal Commission this week. The percentages of Roman Catholic priests and religious who are believed to have engaged in child sexual abuse are astonishing and distressing. (40.4% of all St John of God Brothers and 14.7% of the priests from Sale just for starters.) Not that we Anglicans have anything to be proud of – our percentages haven’t been published and we have escaped some of the worst excesses because we have very few religious orders and therefore fewer schools and children’s homes. What is interesting is that the revelations of child sex abuse has not led to vast numbers of practicing Christians leaving the church in disappointment or disgust. The reason for this, I believe, is that many people lost confidence in and abandoned the institution of the church decades ago.

Why then did people become disillusioned with the church? What caused them to abandon what was once a foundation of our society? It is impossible to be definitive of course and there are many and varied reasons why people no longer give up their Sunday mornings to attend church. My observations suggest there were sources of disquiet before our record on child sex abuse was exposed. Among these was the perceived discrepancy between what the church preached and how the church and its members behaved. It was not uncommon in the sixties and seventies to hear the charge of hypocrisy leveled at the church. There was a feeling among some that the church and its members did not live up to the standards it imposed nor did it live out the principles it proclaimed – “forgiveness of sins” and “unconditional love”. And there was disquiet with the way in which church applied these principles such that a woman who was abused by her husband was asked to forgive, but the abuser was not asked to stop the abuse or that a young woman who found herself to be pregnant was forced to give up her child. The church of the fifties and sixties often claimed the moral high ground when it was clear that its members were as vulnerable and flawed as the rest of society.

One of the problems, at least so I believe is the way in which the faith has been taught which in turn relates to the way in which the church assumed the role as the guardian of morals for society at large. So while it may not have been universally true, it seemed to me that the church placed an emphasis on “being good” or with keeping the Ten Commandments. There is of course no problem with encouraging goodness except that, not only does it suggest that being good is sufficient in itself and have the effect of emphasising obedience to a set of rules rather than on having a change of heart, it also indirectly suggests that it is possible, by adherence to the rules to somehow become faultless, to achieve perfection. The reality is, that while it is relatively easy not to steal, not to lie, not to commit adultery and not to murder, it is impossible for anyone to be absolutely perfect. So a person who is able to obey the rules might present an outward show of goodness or uprightness that may or may not hide an inner turmoil of selfishness, mean spiritedness or anger. Such a person is rightly called “hypocritical” because he or she makes out that they are one thing when really they are another and any discerning person can see through the surface to what lies beneath. It is this sort of double standard or false image that brings the church into discredit – a belief that what is on the surface is more important than what lies beneath.

It is exactly this sort of complacency that Jesus is challenging in the strange and disparate mixture of sayings that make up today’s gospel. It is not enough Jesus says to stop short of killing someone – anything less than unconditional love of the other is the same as murder. Not committing adultery is commendable, but if we have lustful thoughts towards someone to whom we are not married then we demonstrate that we are a long way from achieving the sort of perfection that rivals the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. In other words, there is not a sliding scale of perfection – one is either perfect or one is not.

Jesus is demanding the impossible – or at least that is how it seems. No one can be perfect except God and Jesus who is God. But that is just the point – we can’t be perfect. Few if any of us would ever be able to achieve the sinlessness modeled by Jesus and the good news is that we do not have to. What we do have to do is recognise our imperfections and acknowledge that we are no better than anyone else. Instead of comparing ourselves with others in order to reassure ourselves that we are somehow superior, instead of papering over our inner weaknesses with a superficial show of obedience and goodness, Jesus suggests that we recognise that we share the same faults and flaws as the rest of humanity. Only if we have the courage to see ourselves as we really are will we be able to change into the people God wants us to be and only if we have the confidence to allow others to see beyond the surface will they accept that we really are authentic and that even though we fail, we are struggling to live the faith that we proclaim.

God demands perfection – not because perfection is possible, but because it forces us to recognise our imperfections and to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

If we have been putting on an outward show, if we have been trying to fool ourselves and others, perhaps now is the time to be honest with ourselves, to let go of any falsehood and to realise that only if we recognise that we need to change, will it be possible for God to change us.





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