On Being Perfect
There was an hour to kill between appointments last night, so my daughter and I went to grab something to eat. It had been a day—not particularly good, not particularly bad, just, I don’t know, acceptably mediocre—and we were both a little tired. We sat mostly in silence, munching on our sandwiches, me thinking about the evening meeting ahead, she thinking… well, what was she thinking. She stared absently past me, for the most part. Neither of us seemed much in the mood for conversation.
“Does it ever make you sad that people have to eat alone?” The question, as so many with kids do, came out of the blue with no warning. I turned around to look where she was looking and saw a woman packing up the remnants of her dinner. I had noticed her when we walked in, but paid little attention. She was probably in her mid-twenties, probably not what many would call attractive, at least not by the impossible standards of the engineered and edited repositories of desire that grace the covers on the magazine racks. She had a mental disability of some kind. She was the kind of person—Christ have mercy—that is all too easy to look past.
“I don’t know,” I limply replied. “Some people prefer to eat alone. Maybe she likes it better that way?” My daughter thought about that for a minute. She didn’t seem convinced. “Sometimes, when I see someone eating by themselves or sitting alone somewhere, I feel like walking up to them and giving them a hug,” she said. “Especially if they’re old.” My fatherly instincts began to kick into overdrive as I imagined my sweet little girl walking up to random strangers and hugging them because she imagined them to be old and lonely. “Um, well, that’s really great, but you need to be a bit careful about that…” I said, inwardly noting how cringe-worthily lame this must sound. “Yeah, I know,” she said. You can’t trust everyone. I wouldn’t just go hug random people. But sometimes I feel like it. Usually I just try to smile at them, I don’t know, so they can feel like someone cares about them. Sometimes a smile can do a lot to make the world a brighter place.”
We finished our meal and trudged off to our evening appointments. At mine, we read the gospel text assigned for this week, Matthew 5:38-48. There are times when Jesus says nice things that make us feel nice about how nice we are (or are trying to be), times when he talks about love and peace and justice in comfortably vague and non-threatening ways (assuming we’re not paying very careful attention). This is not one of those times. This is a very different kind of time, a time when Jesus grabs us by the collar and shakes some foolish sense into us. This is one of those times when Jesus makes our ears burn with his craziness. Do not resist an evildoer… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…give your cloak as well… go also the second mile… give to everyone who begs from you… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Because, presumably, your heavenly Father is the sort of father who loves and gives precisely this stupidly, with precisely this little thought for his own self-interest, with precisely this little care for social norms of respectability and propriety. Funnily enough, Jesus seems to imagine that in giving ourselves away in these reckless ways, we are mirroring the character of God himself.
The woman at the sandwich shop got up and left not long after we arrived. We didn’t go sit with her. We didn’t eat with her and we didn’t give her a hug, although we may well have if a certain little girl whose days are so often coloured by the sweet stain of grace didn’t have her reluctant father to drag around with her everywhere. But the woman at the sandwich shop did get a big smile from this little girl who seems to love reflexively, who seems to know that a lonely world that where people eat alone needs more people who are trying to be perfect—teleios, mature, complete—like their heavenly Father.
And the world turned a small shade brighter.