by Daniel Harrell
Many years ago, Dawn and I were driving north from the Carolinas to Boston in our ancient Honda Accord. The tachometer started to spin uncontrollably as the engine sputtered and spit. Enough of a mechanic to know I wasn’t going to make it much further with this car, I coasted into a Southern small town Honda dealership (dealerships being a huge no-no, as you know, when it comes to auto repair). The service rep at the counter greeted me hospitably enough (this being the South) and asked about my trouble. I told him about the sputtering and the wacky tachometer. He reckoned it was a faulty ignition coil. “Critical” he called it, which I knew as code for expensive.
But what options did we have? Being so far from home, we were auto repair hostages. He looked at my registration. “Oh, I see you’re from Baahstun.” Here we go. “Pahk the cah.” “Pay the pipah.” I turned on my twang and told the man I was a grits-loving country boy myself, but he wasn’t buying it. He scanned his docket, saw its was pretty full up, and said they could maybe get to our car sometime next week. But then with a twinkle in his eye, he told us to hang on a second. “Let me see what I can do.” “Give me a couple of hours and somebody will come take a peek.” “Go have some lunch and come back around 2.” So we did and when we got back we were told that the problem was indeed the ignition coil and that they didn’t have one in stock and would have to order it and that probably would take a week—but then he paused again and said, “Let me see what I can do.”
He checked with his parts guy who said that he could overnight a coil by noon the next day, but then yelled if we shipped express overnight (for an additional $20) they could start work first thing in the morning. OK, but then the general manager, overhearing, said, “hang on,” made a phone call and found another Honda dealership an hour away who had a coil. The mechanic agreed to stay late while the rep drove over to fetch it. They’d get her done today. Wow. This was really going cost me. We said thanks and went to sit in the waiting room, but the general manager stopped us, “Hang on,” he said, no need to wait here. He returned with keys to a brand new Honda and told us to go do some sightseeing and come back after supper, oh and here’s a coupon to one of his favorite local restaurants.
Sure enough, we got back and our car was ready to go. The service rep, the general manager, the parts guy and the mechanic were all there to greet us, big smiles on their faces. I was undoubtedly doomed. Nobody’s this nice for nothing. “How much do I owe you?” I squeaked, as I braced for my financial ruin. The service manager replied, “$5.18. We did some research and discovered we could cover most everything under your extended emissions warranty.” I didn’t know I had an extended emissions warranty. “Oh yeah,” he added, “we checked, and there was a recall on ignition switch too, so we went ahead and fixed that. And also you get a free tune-up once you get back to Boston, courtesy of Honda. Sometimes they forget to tell you that.” And lastly, once we got back to Boston, the phone rings and it’s this Honda dealership calling, checking to make sure we made it home OK.
Now I’ve experienced plenty of Southern hospitality in my life—I’ve even shown it—but this was ridiculous. We don’t expect car dealers and mechanics to treat us with such outrageous kindness, but the truth is that we don’t expect anybody to be this nice. Instead, over the course of a life filled with dismissals and disappointment, condescension, frustration, rejection, reality-based TV, social media, partisan politics and just banal rudeness, we’re conditioned to be suspicious of graciousness; to lower expectations and presume the worst. This is true even with those dearest to us. Here Jesus commands we love your enemies, but sometimes that’s easy compared to our family and friends.
Ever since the Garden of Eden fiasco, Scripture itself has possessed a fairly pessimistic view of human nature. Whether the law or the prophets, the proverbs or psalms, the gospels and epistles and crazy Revelation, we read over and over of human depravity: “No one does good, not even one.” “All have sinned and fall short.” Meaning you and me too. We make matters worse, Jesus says, by going after the specks others have in their eyes while ignoring the two by fours protruding out of our own. “Hypocrites,” he calls us. If you’re going to presume the worst in others, you might as well start with yourself. God knows, nobody’s perfect.
So why does Jesus insist we go for it? In this morning’s text, Jesus issues the preposterous imperative to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He bases it on our theme for the year: “Love your neighbor.” Jesus labels love as what matters most, beginning with God but then extending to your others. Only now, loving God and your neighbor isn’t enough if you don’t love your enemies too. “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.”
Loving God and your neighbor, the two greatest commandments according to Jesus, both come straight from the Old Testament. But apparently somebody had twisted their Torah. According to Jesus, “You have heard it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Except hating your enemy isn’t in the Torah. It does say “don’t hate your neighbors or kinfolk.” But the commandment got twisted to mean that as long as you don’t hate your kin or your neighbor, it’s okay to hate your enemy. And then twisting some more, it became the case that if you do hate your kin or your neighbor, you can label them your enemy and that’ll make hating your relatives okay too. Bearing a grudge was now obeying the law. But Jesus said no, we must love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Be like God who shines the sun on evil and good and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike. To call yourself a Christian means being like Christ, true to your calling as adopted children of God. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But honestly. Who’s supposed to take this seriously? By making God Almighty the comparative standard, Jesus sets the bar so high as to be unattainable. Why bother trying? “Be perfect” like God is nothing but a formula for spiritual futility and failure.
Still, some will go for it. “Do not murder,” Jesus commands back up in verse 21 of this same chapter 5. “Check,” you say, “I haven’t killed anybody.” But then verse 22, Jesus qualifies: “if you are angry with a neighbor, you will be liable to judgment; if you insult a neighbor, you will be liable to the courts; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” That’s not good. “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus commands in verse 27. Check? But then verse 28: “Whoever looks at another lustfully has already committed adultery in their heart. If your right eye cause you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.” Just reading the Bible here. Jesus goes on the same way with oath making and breaking, marriage and divorce, cheeks and cloaks, friends and enemies. What is this? Leviticus or the Gospel of Matthew? It’s both. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is the New Testament version Leviticus 19:2, where God says it himself: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Holiness implies purity and goodness, as well as integrity and power, all of which apply to God. Applied to God’s people, holiness meant total devotion and fidelity, a kind of perfection that exuded love and kindness and goodness and grace toward all. For Jews of Jesus’ day, God’s appeal to perfection and holiness made sense, but it also made them nervous. The Temple where God Almighty lived sat at the center of town. But it was like living next to a nuclear power plant. You’re grateful for all the energy and light, but one wrong motive or move and kaboom. What were the people to do? Sinners like the rest of us, our eyes thy glory may not see— how could they abide the Lord’s presence and not be blown away on account of their chronic infidelity and wrongdoing?
Old Testament Law provided protocols and priests, Levites to mitigate the relationship between perfection and the people. But God desired more than a mitigated relationship. Jesus speaks of a heavenly father and us as God’s children. The prophets and apostles use the language of covenant, akin to an intimate marriage. The Lord promised to bless his people and asked only for their obedience—but obedience sounded like wedlock in the worst sense. The promise to obey has been struck from traditional wedding vows in our day, it sounds too much like loveless duty and subservient submission. But tether it to love, and obedience, from the word meaning to listen, is all about devotion and care and doing what’s best for another, even unto death. Unlike human marriages where promises to love made in God’s name are not always kept, in biblical covenants, God pledges his own self. God does the blessing and then through Jesus does the obedience too, even unto death on a cross. All we have to do is receive and be thankful, and then show our gratitude by doing unto others as the Lord has done unto us. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Nevertheless, we still stumble over the word perfect. A better synonym might be purposeful or complete or even mature. The sacrificial animal without blemish, the full grown adult doing what she’s been trained to do best, the student who learns what he’s taught—all these are Biblical depictions of perfection. A person or thing is “perfect” if it realizes the purpose for which it is made and called. What is your purpose? Back in that garden before the fiasco, The Lord said, “Let us make people in our image, after our likeness.” You are made to be like God. It is our calling as God’s children.
But alas, being the sinners we are, we can’t pull it off on our own. We’re too defective. Jesus’ calls us to be holy as God is holy, but his call is really more of a recall. And like any recall, it’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to fix the defect. Which is what God does for us in Christ—and outrageously so since our defects aren’t even God’s fault. But the Lord fixes us anyway.
For all that Southern Honda dealership knew, my ignition coil maybe went bad because I drive like a maniac. Maybe I gunned the car up and down those hillbilly mountains like some moonshine drinkin’ NASCAR wannabe. On top of that, maybe I took lousy care of my car, skipping all the scheduled maintenance services. Maybe I’d been cited for a bunch of violations and had my license revoked and shouldn’t have been driving in the first place. But the service rep never once asked what I had done to ruin the ignition coil. He didn’t grill me about how I treat my car or about when I last changed the oil. He didn’t ask how many times I’d been ticketed. He didn’t demand to know how I planned to behave if indeed they agreed to fix my car. No, they just fixed it and did so with uncommonly gracious courtesy because in their view, that’s what they do, and all for $5.18 and a free tune up and phone call to make sure I arrived safely home.
Jesus has put out a recall: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He doesn’t expect the worst; he already knows it. Your only response is not “I’ll try,” but “I can’t.” To which Jesus smiles with a twinkle and replies “let me see what I can do.” Suddenly you’re caught in the hard and humble place of dependency and surrender, of submission and repentance and forgiveness and yes, even obedience.
But this is a good place to be caught because of who’s got you. As my dear Dawn once wrote, “God does what God does—what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. It is my pleasure to stand and wait in the presence of the Lord. The Lord is in his holy temple; I keep silence. The Son of Man must die. The servant is not greater than her master.” “Lose your life and you find it,” Jesus said. “A broken and contrite heart,” the psalmist sings, “God will not despise.” Not only will God not despise it, he’ll heal it and fill it with the Spirit. Your frantic perfectionist efforts at self-improvement and sin-prevention give way to perfect freedom and acceptance and grace and unconditional love. In Christ, you are recalled and remade into the perfect image of God, free in Christ to love and accept and give grace to even your enemies.
The Lord only knows why we humans have been allowed to run our own history, and why we’ve been given the liberty to fork it up as badly as we have, or why God loves us enough to fix us anyway. But if these things are the case, there’s no way around the perfect outrage of grace. As the late theologian and food writer Robert Capon put it, “Ever since Noah, God has had trouble keeping score; and he finally lost all track of it for good in Jesus. He simply doesn’t do it. History does and we do, but God refuses. Instead, the Lord erases all our records by death and raises us by grace with nothing but the record of Jesus remaining.” God does the blessing and through Jesus does the obedience too. All we have to do is receive and be thankful, and then show our gratitude by doing unto others as the Lord has done unto us—loving us though we were his enemies.
From the Puritans: “Heavenly Father, Thou art good beyond all thought, But I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind; My lips are ready to confess, but my heart is slow to feel, and my ways reluctant to amend. I bring my soul to thee; break it, wound it, bend it, mould it. Unmask to me sin’s deformity, that I may hate it, abhor it, flee from it. My faculties have been a weapon of revolt against thee; as a rebel I have misused my strength, and served the foul adversary of thy kingdom. Give me grace to bewail my insensate folly, Grant me to know that the way of transgressors is hard, that evil paths are wretched paths, that to depart from thee is to lose all good. I have seen the purity and beauty of thy perfection, the happiness of those in whose heart you reign, the calm dignity of the walk to which you call. Work in me more profound and abiding repentance; give me the fullness of a godly grief that trembles and fears, yet ever trusts and loves, which is ever powerful, and ever confident; Grant that I may see more clearly the brightness and glory of the saving cross.”