It was a small red car, its paintwork pockmarked with tiny dints left in the wake of an unexpected hail storm. The insurance company said it was a write-off, not worth repairing, even though the engine was undamaged. It wasn’t my car but I felt sad and a bit indignant to see it taken away to be broken up for its still usable parts before ending up in a machine that would squeeze it into something that looks like a metal sandwich.
I’m the kind of car owner who barely notices things like scratches or dints, let alone make, model or colour. As long as my vehicle has a working motor, four wheels and a comfortable seat – well, heating and cooling too – I’m happy.
The fate of that little red car got me thinking about the importance our materialistic values place on perfection. We are encouraged to cook like a Masterchef contestant, furnish and decorate a house like those featured in a glossy home magazine, find time for an exercise class that will ensure youthful slimness, as well as coach the under10 football team and be meaningfully employed. I get sucked into some of this and then feel guilty when I don’t measure up.
Social media would have us believe that expectations like this are the norm for a successful life. If you add Catholic to the mix, then, like me, you’ve also inherited some religious musts labelled “ You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
As Kathleen Norris says in Amazing Grace – A Vocabulary of Faith, ‘The good news about the word perfect as used in the New Testament is that it is not a scary word as much as a scary translation.’
I don’t think Jesus’ understanding of perfect was the same as ours. That sentence about being perfect is tucked in right at the end of Chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, a chapter that begins with the Beatitudes, refers briefly and beautifully about us being salt and light, then goes on to talk at length about what it means to live justly.
It’s an invitation to grow into our individual God imprint, to live it out in real time, wherever life takes us. Yet somewhere early on in Christianity the institutional church slid into confusing perfect with catholic. Practicing catholics or ‘devout’ catholics, as the print media usually put it, can confidently tick off a list that begins with going to Mass on Sunday and includes a whole raft of pious practices. Women and men who move beyond the boundaries of institutional religion in search of spiritual growth are labelled lapsed or disgruntled, as if not following the man-made rules signified a loss of faith.
There will never be just one way to live the Gospel life, just as there can never be a set of rules that are one-size-fits-all. Perfection the Jesus way means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others –as a parent, a friend, a spouse, or the stranger.
That’s not a tidy process and you’ll end up looking like that little red car, dints everywhere. But the engine, the faith that drives you, will still be strong.