The gospel instructs us in a certain way of being imperfect. Here, salvation turns on practicing what Elizabeth Bishop calls “the art of losing.”
Jesus famously describes this art of losing in Matthew 5:48. “Be ye therefore perfect,” he says, “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Here, the term “perfection” indexes that “certain way” that is peculiar to both Jesus and the Father.
The baseline meaning of perfection, of teleios, is completion. But what kind of completion? My suggestion is that, rather than burying Jesus’ teleios beneath layers of curdled metaphysics and ripe fantasy, we ought to simply read the preceding verses in which Jesus tells us exactly what kind of perfection or completion he has in mind.
Here are the preceding verses:
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
If you want to be “perfect” – not in the abstract, not as some shiny, stainless steel composite of John Keats, Brad Pitt, Albert Einstein, and Gordon B. Hinckley, but as the Father is perfect – then you must be complete in the same way that the Father is complete.
The Father is “complete” because he is not “partial.”
To be like him, you must love completely. You must love not just your friends but even (especially) your enemies. You must love not just the just but the unjust. You must make your sun shine on all. You must make your skies rain on everyone.
Perfection consists in being im/partial. It is equanimity.
This is the gospel: be impartial in your love by greeting whatever comes, good or bad, friend or enemy, with the same care, attention, and compassion.
Thus, verse 44 commands: “Love your enemies.” If something bad or evil or offensive comes your way, you must greet it, as would your Father, with selfless care, attention and compassion.
Verse 28 addresses a similar situation, except from the other end of the spectrum: “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The advice is the same. If something good or beautiful or desirable comes your way, you must also greet it, as would your Father, with the same selfless care, attention and compassion.
You must greet both the good and the bad with the same im/partial care, attention, and compassion.
If you do not greet the bad and offensive with impartial care, then anger or hatred results and you are a fool. If you do not greet the good and desirable with that same impartial care, then greed or lust results and you are an adulterer.
Either way, veering from this “perfection,” we fall off into the mire of sin. Greed and hatred take us to the same place.
What interests me most, though, is one additional question we might ask: in light of this sermon, how ought I to greet my own evil and imperfection?
The answer is the same. I am commanded to greet my own imperfection as I would any other imperfection: with care, attention, and compassion. That is, I am commanded to greet my own imperfection with the same impartiality/completion/perfection.
In what way is the Father perfect? He greets all perfection and imperfection the same way. I must do the same. And doubly so when it comes to greeting my own imperfection.
Righteousness arises in my perfect greeting of my imperfection, not in my obliteration of it.
The gospel reveals this certain way, this divine way, of greeting (and being) imperfection.
The gospel is the practice of this art.