Posts Tagged ‘perfection’

The impossibility of perfection

February 11, 2017

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.




Exposed for all to see

August 29, 2015

Pentecost 14 – 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free


Lord our God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, we ask you to cleanse us from all hypocrisy, to unite us to our fellow men and women by the bonds of peace and love, and to confirm us in holiness now and forever. Amen.

Last week we looked – in a rather light-hearted way – at a number of the reasons people give for not inviting others to church. As I reflected on some of those reasons, it occurred to me that not one of us mentioned that the church was perceived as hypocritical. In the latter half of the last century if not before, the accusation of hypocrisy was often leveled at the church and used to justify non-attendance. If the subject of church attendance was raised, we were as likely as not to be told: “I don’t go to church, the church is full of hypocrites”. Those who made the accusation felt that the lives of churchgoers did not match the values and morals that they proclaimed to uphold. To be fair, this statement was made in an age in which the church had set itself up as the moral guardian of society at large and not only did many people feel burdened by the sometimes harsh demands placed on them, but on more than one occasion the church or its members had spectacularly fallen from grace. Issues such as fraud, adultery and underage sex all made front-page headlines and demonstrated that even members of the church were unable to achieve the high standards that they set for others.

The reputation of the church was seriously eroded long before the more recent revelations of the prevalence of child sex abuse in the church and its agencies.

It has been a long time since I have heard the hypocrisy of the church used as a reason for someone not to come to worship or as a justification for abandoning the faith. The reason for this is simple. Over the last decade or so the human frailty of the church has been laid bare for all to see. In the light of catastrophic failures such as child sex abuse it has become impossible for the church to continue to claim the high moral ground and difficult for us to impose on others standards of behaviour that we ourselves cannot consistently achieve. Collectively, we have been forced to concede that we cannot always live out what we preach.

I don’t know about you, but I find this new situation strangely liberating. It means is that we no longer have to pretend. Instead of trying to present a perfect face to the world, we can now be honest about our brokenness and frailty. Instead of standing apart from (dare I say above) society as a whole, we can admit our common humanity. Instead of constantly striving to be what we are not, we can finally relax and let people see us as we really are – imperfect, struggling human beings, set apart only by virtue of our belief in the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

While the exterior of the church may be tarnished and our failures laid bare for all to see, we have been set free from the unnecessary burden of pretence. Now that there is no longer anything left to hide, now that it is impossible to pretend that we are something that we are not, we can concentrate on our true vocation – being in a relationship with the God who accepts us as we are, frees us from guilt and fear and challenges us to strive for wholeness and peace – for ourselves and for others.

Our gospel this morning warns us against giving priority to rules in the belief that somehow we can achieve a degree of godliness simply by our own efforts. It is a reminder that it is what we try to be, not what we pretend to be that really matters. Authentic living, the gospel suggests, means that we should not elevate our public image at the expense of an honest and authentic engagement with and identification with the world at large.

These are lessons that for today’s church have been hard-won but, thanks to the failures of the past, it is much clearer now that the church (the Christian faith) is less about codes of behaviour and more about love, less about being good and more about being with God, less about judgement and more about forgiveness, less about guilt and more about acceptance, less about anxiety and more about confidence, less about exclusion and more about inclusion and most importantly that it is less about putting on a face and more about being real.

We come to church, not because we believe that we are better than everyone else, but because we know that we are not. We come to church as we are – broken and lost – knowing that we are assured of a welcome from the God who forgives the sinner, seeks the lost, embraces the prodigal, lifts the fallen and who longs to heal, forgive and restore a humanity that has lost its way.

This is what we (the church) have to offer the world – not a false image of perfection, but an assurance that God who loved us enough to die for us, is waiting with outstretched arms until each of us finds our way home.


As Rowan Williams said in his enthronement sermon: “The one great purpose of the Church’s existence is to share that bread of life, to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus – You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from God’s fullness and set others free from fear and guilt.”


A matter of perfection

February 21, 2014

Epiphany 7

Matthew 5:32-48

Marian Free

 In the name of Jesus our Saviour who calls us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Amen.

The use of non-violent resistance is usually attributed to Gandhi, who as a young English-trained lawyer, was thrown off a train in South Africa because he refused to move to the third-class carriage when he had tickets for a first class seat. This experience led Gandhi to develop “satyagraha” – a deliberate and determined nonviolent resistance to injustice. Such resistance would mean not complying with an unjust law and not reacting to the consequences of non-compliance whether it be violence, confiscation of property, angry or an attempt to discredit the opposition. The goal, it was hoped would be not winners and losers but that all parties would come to see the injustice of a particular law and that those with the power to do so, would abolish it.

In South Africa, Gandhi organised opposition to the Asiatic Registration Law. Seven years of protests and strikes finally saw the law repealed. Returning to India, Gandhi observed the injustices perpetrated by the British against the Indian people and set about trying to change the situation without resorting to violence. As we often see, it can be very difficult to ensure that protests remain non-violent and in a country as vast and as populated as India it was, at the start, difficult to prevent rioting among the people. The famous Salt March is an example of a successful non-violent protest.

Salt was a seasoning that even the poorest of Indians used. However, the British had made it illegal for anyone other than themselves to make and sell salt. In order to expose this injustice and to subvert a law that caused so much heartache Gandhi set out with 78 people to walk 200 miles to the beach. Along the way he was joined by two to three thousand more. When the group reached the beach they spent the night in prayer. In the morning Gandhi picked up a grain of salt. An act considered to be illegal. His action began a tidal wave. All over India people began to collect, make and sell salt. The British reacted by arresting those taking part.

When Gandhi announced a march on the Dharasana Saltworks he was arrested and imprisoned, but the march continued all the same. When the marchers reached the saltworks, they approached the waiting policemen 25 at a time. Watched by media from all around the world, the marchers, who did not even raise their arms to protect themselves, were beaten to the ground with clubs. When they could no longer stand, the next 25 came forward and so on, until all 2500 protestors had been beaten to the ground. Not one had shown any resistance and not one had broken the law. The news of the British brutality towards non-resisting protestors quickly spread, forcing the Vice-Roy to release Gandhi and to begin discussions with him. It took much longer for India to be granted Independence, but Gandhi had demonstrated that force was not necessary to bring about change.  (details from

Two thousand years before another man had demonstrated peaceful resistance. In the face of charges that were false and unjust and with the prospect of a particularly nasty fate ahead, Jesus chose to remain silent. He offered no defense, he did not protest his innocence, he did not call on his disciples to fight and nor did he call on heaven to intervene.

Today’s gospel contains the second set of three anti-theses (the first of which we encountered last week). Again, Jesus is taking teaching with which his hearers would have been familiar and extending it to its logical conclusion. If love of neighbour is important, love of enemy fulfills or completes the commandment to love. Taken to its extreme love excludes no one. Just as the sun and rain do not discriminate between the good and the bad, so too authentic love does not choose who to include or exclude within its scope. After all, it is easy to love those who love us back – even the worst of sinners do that.

Inclusive “love” is expressed in a number of radical ways: by being authentic, by not returning violence with violence, by showing generosity rather than giving the bare minimum. It is this love, the going above and beyond the minimal requirements of the law that will make Jesus’ disciples more righteous than the Pharisees (5:20). Jesus’ followers will demonstrate their righteousness by fulfilling the intention rather than just the letter of the law.

Love of the kind described here is only possible if we have reached a stage in our own lives in which we no longer need the recognition and affirmation of others. It is only possible to love so carelessly and indiscriminately if our sense of self is complete and secure. We can only find the strength to be utterly selfless, if we have a true sense of who we are.

Jesus was able to speak with such authority because he was absolutely clear about who he was and what he was called to do. In our faith journey we are called to the same depth of relationship with him and with God, that we too are able to step beyond our fears and doubts, our anxieties to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).


Perfect has no part measures

February 15, 2014

Epiphany 6 – 2014

Matthew 5:21-32

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves us and expects us to share that love with others. Amen.

There used to be a playground chant used as a response to teasing or insult. I’m sure that most of you know it: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” I imagine it was a jingle that was taught to children by people who wanted to build their resilience and I suspect that it worked at least to some extent. That is, it taught children not to let negative comments get under their skin, but to treat them as something superficial, to have such a solid understanding of their worth as a person that the taunts could run off their back. If the child in question felt that they had been heard, the advice would have assured them that someone was on their team, recognising that the attacks were not warranted and giving them a strategy for coping[1].

The problem with the statement, “words will never hurt me” is, that in a great many cases, it is not true. Words can do as much, if not more, damage than physical attack and they leave wounds that are not immediately obvious to others – and sometimes not even to the victim.

Children who are constantly demeaned by the adults in their lives or taunted by their friends, can develop a sense of self-loathing that is difficult to turn around. Women and men who are constantly put down by their partners begin to believe that they are in fact worthless. In many cases, broken bodies heal with the proper attention, but broken minds and hearts can go unattended, often with disastrous consequences.  Thanks to social media we cannot ignore the devastating effects of on-line harassment which tragically has led young people to take their own lives. I can’t even imagine what the consequences of the current practice of “shaming” young people will have on their future lives and development.

Jesus, without the benefit of modern psychology seems to know intuitively the power of words to hurt. You have heard it said: “You shall not kill, but I say to you whoever calls their brother or sister “fool” will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

In this rather long selection from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing the radical love that being his follower demands. In a series of anti-theses, “It was said – but I say,” Jesus takes the teaching of his day one step further. It is not sufficient, he suggests, to do the bare minimum. True love does not demean another person, real love is not limited to those who love us back, love that is real seeks reconciliation not conflict. Love is based on an authenticity that does not need to swear on anything, because it is always truthful.

When we think of the Sermon on the Mount, we tend to think only in terms of the beatitudes. However, the way in which Matthew has arranged his material extends the sermon from what we know as the beginning of chapter 5 to chapter 7:28. Within this section, verses 5:21-48 consist of a series of six anti-theses of which three are included in today’s gospel reading. These six anti-theses are divided into two groups of three 21-32 and 33-48. What links these six together – apart from their common structure – is the commandment to love which is implied throughout and stated explicitly in verse 43. In verse 48, Jesus’ hearers are exhorted to “be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect.” This conclusion makes clear that Jesus is demanding his followers to go above and beyond duty and law and to try to emulate the perfect love of God.

Throughout this section of the sermon, Jesus uses the formula: “you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times” – or an abbreviated form of the formula. It is difficult to say with certainty to which authority Jesus is referring. As there few are exact quotes Jesus could be referring to the Old Testament, to the oral tradition of the Jewish people or to the teaching of the Pharisees. One commentator, Luz, argues that on the basis of the content and the language of the sayings that the content refers to the Jewish scriptures. This, Luz argues, is consistent with Matthew’s overall view that Jesus fulfills or completes the scriptures. That does not mean that Jesus contradicts or rejects the Old Testament scriptures but rather that he expands and breathes new life into precepts that were always true. In other words Jesus rewrites what he has inherited in such a way as to bring to fulfillment or completion their true purpose.

Jesus begins with what is the only explicit quote from the Old Testament: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” He then goes on to list five antitheses to this statement. In other words, Jesus takes one of the commandments (slightly expanded) and demonstrates how different it looks with love at the centre – or when a lack of love is replaced with love.

Jesus follows the commandment with three negative examples of unloving behaviour, examples of not keeping the commandment. He points out that anger and name-calling are not expressions of love. They can be just as damaging and hurtful as physical violence. He continues with two positive examples of being loving (keeping the commandment) – making peace with a fellow believer who is angry at you and coming to an agreement with someone who is taking you to court. Jesus is insinuating that while not loving is as bad as murder, loving leads to reconciliation. In other words, nothing less than unconditional love and respect fulfills the sixth commandment.

In these anti-theses, Jesus takes the law to its ultimate goal. By making clear the intention of the commandment, he introduces a radical law that is free of compromise. One is either loving or one is not.

It is relatively easy to keep the letter of the law: do not kill. It is much harder to live in such a way that no one is ever hurt by a thoughtless word or a deliberate barb. Until we are perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect (5:48), we must accept that our behaviour falls far short of the law, that the standard set by Jesus is one that we may never reach and that we must never judge another or consider ourselves better than another.

Perfect has no part measures.

[1] A quick look at my Facebook account tonight had two posts that I was tempted to use as examples – one on the top twenty things to say and another about breastfeeding. The latter posted on upworthy reminded me of a great response to bullying by a American broadcaster who received a nasty emai about her weight.

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