Recently, during Bible study one Sunday morning the topic of perfection came up. We had been going through Matthew’s Gospel and found ourselves at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, particularly these verses:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I pointed out that the Sermon on the Mount serves to disabuse us of the notion that we can be perfect and righteous through our own efforts. The point in Jesus’ statement quoted above is that if our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (people who devoted themselves to God’s Law), then we are truly lost if left to ourselves. Instead, we must rely on Christ’s righteousness which he credits to us in our Baptisms by virtue of his death and resurrection. Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf and died for our sins.
But, then there was a further thought which popped into my mind: “Even if we could make ourselves perfect, we still live in an imperfect, fallen world. We wouldn’t fit in this world.” This is similar to the old military adage: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” What I mean is that no matter how much we try to be perfect, we have to live in a world that is not perfect and where decisions are not black and white, but often very gray. We often have to make hard choices not between two good options, but rather between two bad options.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses this topic in his book “Ethics.” He begins by noting that the whole study of ethics is a symptom of our fall. Originally, Adam and Eve only knew “good;” they did not know evil, so there was no need for “ethics” since there was no need to judge between “good” and “bad.” However, since they fell into sin and we, as their descendants, are sinful, we do know evil and so have to use “ethics” to judge between “good” and “bad.” Often, we must also judge between “bad” and “not so bad,” as I mentioned above.
Bonhoeffer derided those people who seek to be pure and untouched by the problems of this world. As an example, he postulated a situation where a man is hiding another person in their home to protect them from the authorities (keeping in mind that Bonhoeffer lived during the Nazi era in Germany, this was a very real situation). Suppose the authorities came to the man to ask him where the person in-hiding was. If the man wished to remain “pure” and never tell a lie, he would tell the authorities the truth, keeping his “purity” intact, but condemning the person in-hiding to death. Conversely, if the man lied and told the authorities he didn’t know where the other person was, he would be lying (committing a sin), but would save the other person’s life. Bonhoeffer called this “taking sin upon yourself” for the benefit of another, similar to how Christ took our sin upon himself in order to save us.
The point is that in a fallen world, we could not possibly be perfect. Another example I think of is fitting parts in a mechanical device, such as a Colt model 1911 handgun. The hardest part to fit in a 1911 is the barrel; it must be carefully fit to the slide. You can take a perfectly in-spec barrel and find that it won’t fit in the slide, because the slide was made to slightly different dimensions or possesses dimensional variations. Thus, the “perfect barrel” is going to have to be changed if it’s going to fit into an “imperfect” slide. This is similar to how a “perfect” person is going to be affected by an “imperfect” world. We saw it with Jesus Christ himself. He is perfect, the sinless Son of God in the flesh. For his perfection, he was nailed on the cross by sinful men. His perfection was rejected by an imperfect world.
We will be made perfect some day, however. When Christ returns on the Last Day to resurrect our bodies, he will make us and all things perfect. Thus, while we will be made perfect, so will the rest of creation as sin, death, the devil, and all evil is removed from this promised land. So, as perfected creatures we will not have to try to fit into an “imperfect” world. Instead, we will live in a perfect world with our perfect God and with other perfected believers, and everything will finally “fit” as it was meant to.
(Image by Michaelsaludo (Michaelsaludo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharente_Christ.jpg)