Be perfect – or be merciful?

The Bible verse, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5 v 48) has been a stand out verse for me through most of my adulthood. It may be that it fits so well with our zeitgeist. Perfection is touted by cosmetic companies, young beautiful bodies are airbrushed to sell products, kids can score 100% in a literature GCSE or A Level (and feel disappointed with 98%!) and social media allows us to view the edited showreels of a myriad of lives leading us to believe that our friends and neighbours and celebrity role models are  living a more perfect life than us. I realise I have written about this and this verse in a blog nearly two years ago

A few months ago, in Richard Rohr’s daily newsletter, he claimed that this verse has been poorly translated into English and should read, Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful. When I read this I literally felt the weight of expectation lift. I hardly dared believe he could be right but a cursory google reveals that many people agree – it should mean love impartially as your Father loves impartially. And in the context of loving your enemy this makes a lot of sense.

I think the Church as well as the world lives with the weight of trying to be perfect and I think it is limiting us. If we are trying to be perfect we will burn out by trying to meet everyone’s expectations. We will never say no to any demands however unreasonable they may be. If we are trying to be perfect we can never allow ourselves to fail. This means we cannot risk anything and so we cannot innovate because whenever we try anything new there is a risk of it failing. If we are trying to be perfect we can never be vulnerable. Being vulnerable means honestly admitting our imperfections and limitations and working with them.

I had no idea how it would feel to lose a parent and grief has left me vulnerable. I keep saying to myself ‘you are really not yourself at the moment.’ But of course that is ridiculous. I am myself but a different version of myself. One that finds sermons harder to write, that has less capacity, that is more tired and less good-humoured.

My good friends have pointed me to two TED talks by Brene Brown that my earlier version of myself might well have dismissed. She talks about vulnerability as the birthplace of creativity and the beginning of honesty. She also talks about shame and how the feeling of being not quite perfect haunts us and makes us feel unacceptable. Being vulnerable encourages empathy and empathy defeats shame. The links are here for shame and here for vulnerability.

I have been reading Jonathan Sack’s book Not in God’s Name which sheds some wonderful light on stories from the Hebrew Bible. He reminds the reader that God constantly chooses the vulnerable, who are not necessarily the weak. For me this was most clearly illustrated by the story of Jacob who is renamed Israel after a wrestling match with God and restored into right relationship with his family – but only after receiving an injury from an angel. In my training for ordination too, many people spoke of being called following or during  time of breaking and remoulding. I know I have felt closest to God in times of illness, failure or sadness.

As a Christian, I am of course aware that the crucified Jesus we worship was vulnerable but I am not sure how comfortable we feel with that vulnerability. We prefer perhaps images of power, victory and glory. Somehow we have turned the image of a suffering human enduring torture into an image of power and sometimes of partiality.

Loving impartially makes us very vulnerable. We are much safer if we take sides, we feel stronger when we can judge others and we feel better about ourselves if we can dismiss those who make us feel uncomfortable. I love the 5th chapter of Matthew but when I hear verse 48 I think I will hear Be vulnerable as my Father in heaven is vulnerable and rather than being bound by perfection I will be free to take risks, love courageously and present myself to the world more honestly.

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3 thoughts on “Be perfect – or be merciful?

  1. Pingback: Be Perfect… | Worship, Community, Formation

  2. I think that’s part of the deacon’s job, to recall the church to Jesus’ willingness to be vulnerable, rather than ‘running projects’ that make us out to be ‘doing something’ and therefore ‘successful’. I find that kingdom values overturns everything ‘the world’ considers success – and sadly, often the church has swallowed whole the secular understanding of success and applies it to ministry. It’s also part of our diaconal job to take risks and to fail, and to learn how to be with failure, and indeed, to work out what ‘failure’ might mean in the kingdom of heaven. For me, a foundational verse for many years has been ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness’. I find it hugely liberating.

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