Philippians 3.5-6 As far as the Hebrew Law
is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the
The zealous person is a dangerous
person. For Christians, this statement may appear counter-intuitive.
Shouldn't they be "zealous for the Lord"?
Paul gives a terse response. He was once so zealous that
he took it out on those he thought were falling short of the perfection
required of them. Recall that he was a Pharisee - one of a small group
highly committed to the Hebrew Law.. What more choice a target than
a bunch of renegade Hebrews calling themselves "Of the Messiah"
(Christ-ian)? He has now changed. The answer is no longer to strive for
perfection but to rest in God's total acceptance through Jesus of
The passion for perfection displayed by the younger Paul has found a
place in the Church, rather like a stone in the boot of a hiker. Christians have always been torn between perfection as a necessary
personal goal, and the reality of what humans actually are.
The demand that we strive for perfection is as old as history. The
ancient Greeks struggled with the gap between what should be and
what is. Plato solved the problem by deciding that our world is a
mere shadow of the perfect. Roman Stoics taught that subduing all passion
and relying totally on reason leads to perfection. Both these solutions
were taken up by early Christians. The so-called "Counsels of
Perfection" eventually emerged. Christians who are poor, celibate and
zealous are more likely than others to reach perfection.
The psychotherapist Eric Berne identified in the 1960s that the
injunction "Be perfect!" is a common theme in the upbringing of
Western children. Some people attempt to put this injunction into practice in
adulthood. The results can be traumatic - ruined health and broken
relationships being the least of them.
And so it continues to this day in the Church. Christians are supposed
to be better than non-Christians. Ordained people are expected to rise
above ordinary laypeople. Bishops and the like should be still more
perfect. Woe betide anyone who fails spectacularly enough to attract
The position is somewhat complicated by the apparent words of Jesus in
Matthew 5.48: "You must be perfect - just as your Father in heaven is
perfect!" Fortunately, all the evidence is that these are the words
of the Gospel author. He is expressing the teaching of the community he
was part of. This is not an injunction which need carry absolute weight
In apparent contrast is the position of St Augustine of Hippo. We must
realise, he taught, that we are all corrupt. All humanity since the
rebellion of Adam and Eve is infected with sin. Only Jesus can rescue us.
Any journey towards perfection follows a mirage.
What lies behind both
these visions of humanity? It is that we should be what we are not.
put this another way: One of the great discoveries of the modern age is
that the world is as it is not because it has declined from perfection,
but because perfection doesn't exist. We are part of nature. And we have
been created by God through a process which doesn't admit the kind of
perfection which, because we seem to fall short, tends to breed in us a
corrosive sense of guilt.
This is not to say that we don't willfully
miss the mark, that we don't fall short from time-to-time. But there is
little or no point in setting ourselves up for failure by creating
What is, is perfection. Jesus himself
reassures us. We are not like old cloth which can't be patched; or like
old wineskins which can no longer hold wine.
His conclusion was this:
"The way God gets things done is like this: it's like a man sowing
seed on his land. He gets up every day and goes to bed every night, paying
little attention while the seed sprouts and matures. The process is
automatic - first comes the shoot, then the head, and finally a mature ear
of grain. When the grain is ripe, the man acts quickly, calling for his
sickle, because it's time to harvest."