Day 3: The Power of Perfection
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
You see then that fasting is certainly not considered by the Lord as a thing that is good in itself because it becomes good and pleasing to God not by itself but by in conjunction with other works. [i]
John Cassian (d. 435), Conferences
We pray, O Lord, that with your gracious favor you would further the fast which we have begun. With our bodies we outwardly worship you. Help us inwardly to do the same with singleness of heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
Times were tough when the Persians became the dominant power in the ancient Near East. As Nehemiah described it, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses to get grain because of the famine” (Neh 5.3). The prophet Haggai said it like this: “Those who earn wages end up with holes in their money bags” (Hag 1.6). Amidst these difficulties, the people wondered why their pious practices – particularly, fasting – were not changing the situation. The simple answer was that piety was not enough. Faith must be lived out in action by alleviating the suffering of the downtrodden and pursuing justice among the poor.
God: 1Cry out mightily; do not be silent. Lift up your voice like a trumpet and declare to my people their transgressions and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Day after day they seek me; they delight to know my ways. Would that they were like nations who execute righteousness and do not forsake the Law of their God! They would ask me for righteous decrees; they would delight to draw near to God.
People: 3Why have we fasted and you have not observed it? We’ve humbled ourselves and you don’t know it!
God: 4Look, on the day you fast, you find delight while all those who toil for you are oppressed. 4Moreover, you fast only then to engage in quarrels, strife and wicked brawls. Don’t fast like this so as to prevent your voice from being heard on high! 5Is this the fast I’ve chosen? Is this just a day for man to humble himself, to bow his head like a bulrush, to lie down in sackcloth and ashes?
God: 6Is this the fast I’ve chosen? No, loose the wicked bonds; undo the oppressive yoke; let the oppressed go free and tear off every yoke. 7Shouldn’t you share your bread with the hungry and let the homeless poor into your house? When you see someone naked, clothe him and don’t hide yourself from your fellow countryman. 8Then your light will shine like the noonday and your healing will spring up swiftly. Your righteousness will go before you, the glory of the LORD will protect you. 9Then you’ll call and the LORD will answer; you’ll cry out and he’ll say, “Here I am.” You must rid the yoke from your midst, and stop pointing your finger and speaking sinfully.
New Testament Lesson
This is one of the foundational texts in Christian literature. In it, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to be perfect. Then He links perfection to the proper practice of pious acts like prayer and giving alms. The key to this passage is to understand what “perfection” means. Matthew, writing as a Jew for a Jewish audience, does not employ perfection in a Greek sense, but in a Hebrew sense.[iii] To the Greeks, perfection was about fulfilling your goal or end. As Christians who have not experienced heaven or been raised from the dead, Greek perfection is not a realistic expectation. To Jews, however, perfection was about proper piety and obedience. If you can genuinely love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, you have started to experience the total self-giving love which God has for each of us. Perfect love for all of God’s people is what Christian perfection really is. Our pious practices should be helping us to grow in faith, hope and love, resulting in particular care for the poor and oppressed.
Matthew 5.43-48; 6.1-6
43You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you might become sons of your Father who is in heaven, since his sun rises on the wicked and the good and his rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Do not even tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brethren, are you doing anything more than others? Do not the Gentiles do the same? 48Therefore, be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.
1Be careful not to do your pious acts before men to be seen by them. If you do, you have no credit from your father who is in heaven. 2So, when you give alms, do not sound the trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the alleys so that they might be praised by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
5And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites since they love to stand praying in the synagogues and on the street corners, so that they might be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your inner room and close the door to pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Questions for Reflection
- How is your Lenten fast going? Are you practicing self-denial in some sort of real way? Is it making any tangible difference in your remembering to pray and to be conscious of the presence of God in your life?
- We live in a very individualistic city, country and world. Yet, in this passage, the people are indicted for their individualism. How do you live out the obligation God puts on his people to pursue justice in some sort of practical way?
- What do you do to get attention? In what ways do you struggle with pride in your life?
- From the time of the early church, Christians have always taught that giving to the Church and/or the poor is beneficial for our spiritual lives. Do you practice this? Do you believe this?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
In the first week of Lent, we are laying the groundwork for the disciplines that will guide us through this season. We learn today that it is not enough just to do pious practices. Fasting from caffeine, alcohol, meat, news, social media or whatever you decide to do during Lent has little benefit if it doesn’t cause us to draw closer to God. Our passages remind us that, like anything else, piety without repentance and amendment of life is incomplete.
However this leads some to say that the whole idea of Lent, of fasting, of penitential discipline is misguided. Some say that disciplines are just empty religion that brings no benefit. But this is equally wrong. The disciplines we take on during this Lenten season help us to grow, to contemplate the state of our souls and to draw deeper into a relationship with God. The disciplines we practice – prayer, reading the Bible, giving alms, fasting and confession – are all tools to help us. Or, as Jesus put it, the goal of these disciplines is to bring us to perfection, where we achieve union and perfect obedience with Christ.
The Didache is likely the oldest Christian document we have outside the Bible. It is likely an ancient first-century Church manual. In it, we learn something about the Jewish notion of perfection which is on display in our New Testament passage from today. The author of the Didache writes as follows:
You shall hate all hypocrisy and everything not pleasing to the Lord. You by no means shall forsake the commandments of the Lord, but you must guard that which you have received, neither adding nor subtracting anything. In church, you shall confess your transgressions and shall not come to your prayer with a wicked conscience. Truly this is the way of life…See to it that no one makes you depart from this way of teaching, since such a one teaches you apart from God. Therefore, if you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you’re not able, do what you can.[iv]
Do what you can. That’s the best advice of all. The Church has always recognized that we’re at different states of perfection, at different places on our spiritual journeys. Some love better than others. Some serve better than others. Some know more than others. But none of us has it all nailed down. By the way, it doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, rich or poor, sick or well, spiritual maturity happens at different paces for different people at different stages of life.
But the point of Lent is that our efforts to draw closer to God will be to bear fruit if we stay at it. If, on day three of Lent, you’re already frustrated and ready to stop, this is normal. Our sinful nature strongly resists finding our way to wholeness. We find every excuse to avoid changing for the better. This is the reality of the spiritual life in a broken world.
The answer is simple: just keep going. Real growth is usually quiet and unheralded. But it always takes effort. And once you start to meet with God, this is often when genuine spiritual growth starts to occur.
The focus of our passages from today is the need for social justice. The poor and suffering must never become an abstraction for us. The reason for the emphasis in the Scriptures on alleviating the plight of the poor is because it becomes a measure of our love.
Will you love someone who can do nothing for you? This is what Jesus did for you. Will you pray for those who are actively trying to harm you? This is what Jesus did for you. Will you become an active force in society to right wrongs and to bring justice into a fallen world? Do it because this is what Jesus did for you.
We live out our faith most perfectly when we love those who can do nothing for us. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one saying, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5.15).
- Practice the Discipline of Secrecy
Do something for someone who doesn’t like you and never let them know it was you. To do a good work with no expectation of acknowledgement is to act like Christ.
- Give to the poor
Instead of just giving money to a poor person, seek out a beggar and buy her lunch. Listen to her story and become sensitive to what her needs are.
Traditionally during Lent, Christians refrain from eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Consider following this tradition.
[i] Mark W. Elliott, ed., Isaiah 40-66, Ancient Christian Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 210.
[ii] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary, 430.
[iii] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, ed. Helmut Koester, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 289.
[iv] Michael Holmes, ed., “The Didache,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 4.12–14; 6.1–2.