Yesterday we entered the season of Lent. It comes at the end of winter, when most of our ancestor’s resources ran low and when we long toward the warmth and light of a new growing season. We are called to remember our vulnerability. We are invited to see our utter reliance on God more clearly, not as something to fear but as a reality to celebrate.
I have loved Romans 12:2 since I was 17 years old.Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. It inspires me to constantly and humbly seek understanding of scripture that is not static. Paul’s words call me to aspire to the perfection God desires, which I cannot see in its entirety because I am not God. Our beloved United Methodist Church is convulsed by conflicting interpretations:
1) of the perfection God desires in human life and community
2) of what responsibility each of us has for bringing perfection to others’ lives and
3) the degree and form of communal enforcement required to maintain those standards of perceived perfection.
At no time in scripture are human beings described as actually being “perfect,” no individual, no community, no human product or process. Even the first God made, Adam and Eve, were quickly revealed to be “not up to snuff.” Proverbs 31: 10-31 comes closest when it describes a beloved female head of household. Many women have done excellently but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised….I remember being startled when one biblical scholar suggested, based on contextual evidence from the time this was written, that it may have been tongue in cheek, an impossible standard for any human woman to meet. (There’s also the Song of Solomon’s luscious description of the bride’s physical perfection, but perhaps that can be ascribed to the heat of the moment).
There is also the passage in Ezekiel: You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald; and worked in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared. Ezekiel 28: 11-13 (NRSV)But this image of perfection is hyperbole bracketed by judgement, You were blameless in your waysfrom the day that you were created,until iniquity was found in you. In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned;so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you outfrom among the stones of fire. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.I cast you to the ground….Ezekiel 28: 15-17 (NRSV)
Jesus appeared on the human scene in a community that was beat down, out of power, and splintering into religious factions. And Mathew’s record shows that Jesus called his followers to “be” perfect by behaving in these two ways:
"....if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect." -Matthew 5: 47-48 (NRSV)
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
-Matthew 19: 21 (NRSV)
Extend God’s hospitality and love to those who are outside your immediate “family” and offer all that you have to serve those who are in need, these are Jesus’ instructions to the people he knew were trying so very hard to be perfect. They are not some "set in stone" list of things we need to tell other people to be.
Of course, scripture speaks more frequently about the law, which is God’s way of trying to reign in human behavior before we hurt ourselves and each other. Jesus got into a lot of trouble around how to live according to the law, saying that the law was created for people’s well-being and not the other way around. He “harvested” grain to eat on the sabbath, plucking heads of grain as he walked past fields. He healed the sick rather than waiting for office hours. He ate with sinners (those who knew they were and those who didn’t). Jesus was non-conforming when the rules failed to meet real human need.
The season of Lent is a season of humility. May each of us humble ourselves in our practices of reading scripture more deeply. May all of us watch for evidence of God’s radical acts of love.