“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
Every Halloween my neighborhood with its white picket fences and wrap-around porches magically transforms into an ethereal, other-worldly realm of flying ghosts, cackling witches and lit-up pumpkins. This year was no different.
With one exception. This time one lawn boasted something I had never seen before: a skeleton at a beauty salon. A frame of bones stretched out luxuriously in one of those now-antiquated chairs you used to find in 1950’s beauty parlors, its skull tucked under a helmet-hat blow dryer.
When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” I think of that skeleton at the beauty parlor.
Because our own efforts to be more like God- to beautify our souls in a spiritual
“up do” of sorts- can often leave us feeling racked out like a bunch of dried-up bones. Many of us have gone through all the motions of being a Christian- weekly church attendance, Bible study, tithing 10 percent, teaching Sunday school- only to find that our prayer life is empty and our hearts are numb to the things of God. Many of us, in seeking a wellspring of living water, a place where our souls can drink and find restoration, go to church and find nothing more than a few more skeletons at the beauty salon. All of us sitting in a line of helmet blow dryers. Each of us hoping that maybe this time we’ll come out looking and feeling a little better. A little more beautiful- like “you just stepped out of a salon,” as the Salon Selectives commercial used to croon. A little more alive. A little more like Jesus.
Such is the problem with organized religion. Most of us go into it thinking we will find abundant life but come out dead. We go into it hoping to find our best selves and instead emerge like the walking dead. “Can these bones live?” we find ourselves asking (Ezekiel 37:3).
The problem is that skeletons don’t have hair, skin, or nails. They don’t have the basic requirements for a beauty salon. They need all of the elements of a whole, unique person before they can undergo a full, spiritual makeover; and they need these elements not separately but together, by way of integration.
Which is what Jesus is alluding to here. “Be perfect” is not a command to be spiritually flawless. It is not to have all of one’s religious ducks in a row. Or, to use all of the right, Christian lingo and follow all the appropriate cues. We have all been around such people. People who would like to think that their Christian complexion is without blemish, despite the nasty whitehead on their nose. I remember sitting next to one person in a church membership class who, in a personal survey of spiritual gifts and aptitudes, concluded she had all of them by checking each of the boxes. With my two or three checks I had felt a bit inadequate, if truth be told.
Thankfully, being perfect is also not about having all of the spiritual gifts. Being “perfect” according to Jesus is, rather, having integrity: it is being integrated in such a way that all your parts come together. So that your love of God and neighbor doesn’t change once you leave church. So that your patience, kindness and self-control don’t turn off once you pull up the driveway and open the door to your husband and children. As Stanley Hauerwas recently quipped, “Christians are supposed to love one another even when they are married.”
Similarly, it is one thing to put on a nice smile and really mean it for the folks in your Bible study, but what about the annoying next-door neighbor who lets their dog poop on your front yard and parks in your space? What about the person at work who is always stealing your ideas or undercutting you behind your back? What about the person who in the name of God blew up your son or daughter in a roadside bomb? Does your love of neighbor extend to your enemies as well? Does your love have enough integrity to withstand all of the variations that “neighbor” represents?
Most of us, if we are honest, will answer “no.” In some cases we may give a titular nod to the notion that we as Christians must love our enemies, but we have yet to internalize it. We have yet to let Love permeate our being in such a way that our inner life accords with our outer actions. Until then we are no more than brittle bones waiting for a make-over.
The Good News is that by God’s grace these bones can live. In the same way that the Spirit of God moved over Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, attaching bone and ligament to flesh, the Spirit of God can move over our parched frames and give us skin, nails and hair, so that we become real “mensch.” People with integrity. So that when others see us they don’t just see skeletons at the beauty salon. They see instead real, whole people with real, whole Good News about a God who loved us when we were yet still enemies (Romans 5:8).