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Center for Action and Contemplation

Love Shows Itself as Mercy

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Spirituality of Imperfection: Week 1

Love Shows Itself as Mercy
Thursday, July 21, 2016

Christianity’s idealizing of a kind of “perfection” seems to have emanated from Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies. His exhortation has usually been translated: “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (found only in Matthew 5:48). Let’s take a look at the context leading up to this statement, Matthew 5:43-48, to help us better understand that Jesus was talking about God’s unconditional love as the clear goal, measure, and ideal.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun shine on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The parallel text in Luke (6:36) says, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”  “Be merciful” surely fits the context more precisely than “be perfect,” since Jesus has been describing how God’s love is complete and impartial: God loves “the bad and the good.” Jesus is telling us to love as God loves. God’s love sets the standard and the bar of love very, very high, but that does not imply we can’t ever reach it. We must aim and ask for this kind of love.

In effect, most Christian groups and individuals lowered the bar of perfection by emphasizing achievable goals usually associated with embodiment (attending church on Sunday, not committing adultery, not being a thief, etc.)—goals which we could accomplish and for which we could take credit. These accomplishments only inflated our own self-image, not our love of God. Jesus never emphasized such things at all, because they could be achieved without any foundational love of God or love of neighbor—in other words, without basic conversion of either consciousness or identity. We could achieve this limited perfection through willpower, by “thinking correctly” about it, or by agreeing with a certain moral stance. This appeals to the grandiosity of the small self.

The real moral goals of the Gospel—loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches—can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).

Gateway to Silence:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” —Zechariah 4:6

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Introduction,” “Perfection,” Oneing, Vol. 4, No. 1 (CAC: 2016), 11-12.

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