Perfection is difficult.
Every Friday, the New York Times has a quiz of the week. It’s usually comprised of ten multiple-choice questions about stories that appeared in the paper over the previous seven days. After you finish the test, it tells you what percentage of people got each question right, so that you can compare yourself to others and see how well you performed. I do it every week. Last week I got one answer wrong, which seems good except that 13 per cent of participants got every answer right. They were perfect. I was not.
Perfection is difficult. Not even LFC is perfect this season. Our stats might be better than any other team in the history of Europe’s top five divisions, but we dropped two points in our opening 26 games. Staggering stats, yes, but not perfect.
Today’s Gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount – the passage in Matthew where Jesus spells out the moral code that must guide his followers. There’s a big difference between Jesus’s teaching and the old Jewish law. Jesus takes the old law to the next level. He orientates the focus from head to heart, from convention to conviction, from the letter of the law to the intention behind it.
Jewish law was big into external observance. Keep the law, and you were all right. Stick to everything it prescribed, and you couldn’t go wrong. It didn’t matter very much what kind of person you were on the inside – in the heart – so long as you followed the law line by line.
Jesus sees it differently. It’s not just about keeping the letter of the law. It’s about the kind of person you are, how you relate to others, what motivates you.
We see that contrast played out in today’s Gospel. Jesus says: “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked person no resistance…”
“You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemy…”
You see the pattern: “You have learnt how it was said…. But I say this to you…” The contrast is stark. The old way of living is no longer good enough. We must now live according to the far more challenging new law of Jesus. It’s a call to be our best selves, to be no less than perfect.
This new law of Jesus has vast implications for how we treat each other. Perfection is difficult. We are far from perfect. Think of the tragic story of Caroline Flack, who died last Sunday. The tabloid press harassed her, internet trolls tormented her, reporters hounded her, media circulated all kinds of nasty rumours impugning her. They were having a field day, as they have whenever there’s a juicy story to exploit. Cast into a pit of despair, Caroline Flack saw no way out. They destroyed her.
Think of how polarised and bitter politics and public debate have become at home and abroad – the anger, venom, hatred, sneering contempt that’s directed at individuals and groups. Social media – Twitter, Facebook, messaging apps – are particularly vile and vicious, and even good people get sucked into that world of cruelty and intolerance. It’s a particularly discomfiting environment if you are a woman in the public eye, or if you are gay or trans, or an immigrant. An African footballer walked off a pitch in Portugal last week after suffering disgusting racial abuse throughout a match. He was reduced to tears.
On Wednesday, in Germany, a right-wing nationalist, fuelled by online racist ideology, shot dead nine members of the Kurdish community. An increasing number of children are using racist and sexist language to taunt others in school – in America, much of it because they feel they’ve got permission right from the top.
Now listen to the law of Jesus again: love your enemies; show mercy; extend the hand of friendship; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. A message of inclusion, equality and respect our hierarchical, patriarchal church would do well to take on board also.
Be perfect, Jesus instructs us, but perfection is difficult, and we are far from it.
There’s a line in today’s second reading that gets to the heart of why we must love and respect and forgive and seek perfection. St Paul reminds the people of Corinth that they are God’s temple. The Jewish people believed that God dwelt in the great temple in Jerusalem. The temple was where you found God; the temple was God’s earthly dwelling place.
But St Paul reminds us that God lives in each of us, that God’s Holy Spirit dwells in each of us, that the Spirit has made her home in us. Each of us is God’s temple – no matter our background, or sexuality, or gender, or ethnicity, or physical appearance, or academic qualifications, or career accomplishments, or sporting prowess, or personal history, or class or rank – and so each of us is unique, precious, priceless, lovable, invaluable, irreplaceable.
Each of us is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit, and this knowledge must shape how we treat every other person, online and offline, in person and in absentia.
Living the Sermon on the Mount is living the law of love. It is seeing everyone – everyone – as God’s holy temple. It is to seek perfection, not only in the NYT quiz every week but in every sphere, in everything I do. What a different world we would have, and what different debates we would conduct, and how gentle and just society would be, if we were able to live like that.
Perfection is difficult; be perfect.