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The Secret to Christian Perfection

Perfection is not just doing all the right things and not doing all the wrong things. There's something deeper.

From Leviticus, the command that opens our passage this morning speaks well to the whole: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” Likewise, what Jesus says in the end of today’s passage from Matthew summarizes the whole of what he says before: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Put the two summaries together: whatever holiness is, it’s somehow incomplete without perfection. And perfection, Jesus suggests in Matthew, is impossible without love.

It is maybe a little hard for us to think of perfection in the terms of “turning the other cheek,” and “loving your enemies,” because perfection in our minds usually has more to do with a heroic striving for the good or a heroic resistance to evil. In other words, the perfect Christian is one who, on the one hand, does all the right things and, on the other, doesn’t do all the wrong things. And that’s how we think about perfection in other spheres as well: the perfect president, the perfect athlete, the perfect spouse or child. It’s not clear where suffering enters into it.

But Matthew asks us to consider this possibility: maybe suffering does enter into it, somehow. Because that’s what Jesus is hinting at here: what if there’s a perfection that’s available only to those who suffer, only to those who have enemies, to those who have people hitting them on the cheek and stealing their clothes?

The kind of passivity and suffering shown in the sermon on the mount is meant to show, specifically, a kind of virtue that extends beyond the self. What Jesus is talking about here is not just suffering in itself—as if jumping into a briar patch has inherent value—but suffering that demonstrates something, suffering that demonstrates that there is something more important than my physical or emotional comfort.

The thing about loving one’s enemies is that you don’t get anything out of it. Anybody can love someone who loves him in return. That’s easy. Nor is it all that hard to be nice to the people who modestly inconvenience you—which is maybe what we want Jesus to mean here. But what if Jesus really meant what he said? Love your enemies. As in, your enemies. Not just the bad driver on the way to Walmart, or the soccer teammate who won’t pass, or the politician you don’t like, but real enemies who want to kill you, who think your culture shouldn’t exist, who wouldn’t hesitate to harm you—well, that’s something else. And it touches on perfection.

The reason why it touches on perfection is that it demonstrates perfect love—what the tradition calls charity—caritas in Latin, agape in Greek. It’s a love that isn’t self-serving, a love that submits itself to the good of the other, even when it involves self-risk.

So what Jesus is saying here is, no matter how awesome you are in yourself, no matter how perfect your internal virtue, your moral compass, your good works, if you’re not willing to lay it all on the line for somebody else, to sacrifice your own good for another, your perfection, your holiness, is of no account.

This is no easy principle. It’s tempting to console ourselves today because we’ve forgotten what the word charity means. We know, maybe, that it doesn’t mean the love of romance or friendship. In modern language it’s a catch-all for nonprofit, humanitarian sort of work: charity is giving money or food to those in need, or supporting an organization, like a church, that does such charitable work. But biblical charity is not a generic expression of goodwill toward humanity, or even the specific demonstration of that goodwill with contributions of time and money. Charity means a turn away from the self toward God. Charity is, in the words of St. Augustine, “the movement of the soul towards the enjoyment of God.”

However good and just we are, it all falls apart without love, without charity, and ultimately, without the charity that is directed to God. This is an important reminder for us as we move toward the penitential season of Lent, when we are called both to good works and to self-examination. Both good works and self-examination are worthless without charity. That is hard to hear, because we like to think that being good is good enough, or even that not being evil is good enough. But what Jesus tells us in Matthew is that you’re never truly good until you put your goodness, your perfection, in the hands of another. Because perfection, the kind of perfection known only in God, shows itself not in isolation, but in self-giving community, where the Father is who he is only in relation to the Son, where the Son is known only in relation to his Father; where the Spirit, who is often called the love between the Father and the Son, has no identity but as the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

Let me close by sharing the wonderful collect that is appointed for this Sunday (Quinquagesima) in the Divine Worship Missal:

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

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