Was Jesus perfect?
For some, that question is fairly easy. Of course, he was the Son of God — is the Son of God. He was without sin.
I’m fairly orthodox when it comes to Jesus; my progressive theology — and note that I use that word in reference to theology and not politics — has more to do with living out the teachings of Jesus than it does diminishing the divinity of Jesus.
Some have what we call a “lower Christology,” which is as it sounds: they might not see Jesus as divine, but as a good man, an important prophet, and so on. I’m not going to debate any of that with any of you. You clearly believe what Jesus taught, or you wouldn’t be here. And you do your best to live as he called us to, and to me, that makes you a follower of Jesus, and makes us a better church.
But I want to return to my question, because it’s more nuanced than a simple yes-or-no-answer to which each of our news channels seems intent on pinning people down.
Was Jesus perfect?
And if he was, was he always perfect? As in, what about when he was a toddler? Did he annoy his parents and siblings? Did he rage with his parents through thoseTerrible Twos? Did he show up after curfew or act like a know-it-all?
Let me rephrase the question, then, by asking a clarifying question:
What does it mean to be perfect?
Our teachers might be thinking of elusive, bright red 100s scribbled in their sleep, a perfect score on a pop quiz they throw at their brilliant students.
Our medical professionals might be thinking of surgery, or research, or hunting for veins, or centrifugal fun that necessitates error-free focus and performance.
Our legal professionals might be thinking of the law, and how we must be on the right side of it, not trespassing any codes or regulations or ordinances.
Our service industry professionals might be thinking of the expectations of their customers when it comes to their haircuts or meals or purchases.
Our theologians know where I’m going with this. And many of them, whether they are teachers or pastors or professors, have a forward-looking practice of perfection that doesn’t have to do with errors or rights or wrongs or really performance at all:
It has to do with growth. With consummation. With completion.
That’s the essence of the Greek word telos.
My favorite verse in all of the Scriptures is found in Philippians 1, and we didn’t read it this morning, but it captures this essence of what it means to be perfect, to be perfecting.
I am confident of this very thing, that God who began a good work in you, will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.
The good work of God within us will be carried to completion, to perfection, in Christ. It is being perfected, being completed, being grown and matured.
It has nothing to do with being right or not doing wrong. Sure, if a scientist forgets to put a lid on a whirling test tube, there might be problems, but the imperfection of this oversight, in a theological understanding of the word, has less to do with the error and more to do with the incompletion within the task itself — there’s still more to learn or remember. Now, her supervisor might disagree, and well, fine. But again — pursuing this definition of the word perfect — if I ask you whether you think Jesus was perfect, the question might be getting a bit more complicated than that yes-or-no-answer.
Your follow-up question to mine might be:
At what point in Jesus’ life?
And that’s what I’m getting at. If perfection has more to do with fulfillment, consummation, completion — think of a telescope and how it unfolds toward a goal — tele coming from the same root word telos, which is that word we translate as perfection or completion, but also a goal or an aim or a purpose, then at some point, Jesus did achieve that purpose. He did complete his work. But before he did, he was in the active process of completing it. As in, it wasn’t finished. His work was seemingly finished once he uttered those famous last words.
Which then might mean, strictly speaking under this definition of the word perfect, that to some, Jesus wasn’t always perfect. Not because he sinned, and not because he wasn’t divine, but because he was also a human being who was still growing and moving forward with his purpose. In which case, it’s an example to us that it’s not wrong to be imperfect; it can be a good thing. So long as we’re moving forward in perfecting that which is still imperfect. Or put another way:
It’s okay not to have everything figured out as long as you’re still trying.
So, why am I stirring your theological pot with this question?
Our story this morning from Mark’s Gospel picks up with Jesus and the disciples on the journey into Gentile territory. As 21st century readers, we just assume he was going to preach and teach and heal, but the text seems to indicate that Jesus was trying to retreat for a while. With hordes of people demanding just a minute to talk with him, maybe every Sunday morning before or after worship, or every day, every time he went out, the prospect of shutting down for a little while probably seemed too good to be true.
Because it was.
The people in the region quickly recognize him, and a woman of Syrophoenician origin (a Gentile) finds him and bows down at his feet. She’s seeking healing for her daughter with an unclean spirit.
As the woman asks Jesus for this blessing, Jesus answers in a peculiar way, one that has stumped and divided scholars for ages.
He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs.”
It’s startling because we only know sweet Jesus, don’t we? How could he be so rigid or upon some renderings — unkind? And did he just call a woman a dog? And why wouldn’t he just heal the child because that’s the compassionate thing to do?
Some scholars water this down, some chalk it up to a set-up for a teaching moment, others say all Jewish people saw Gentiles as dogs, while others say that’s more of a misunderstanding upon further research. Some say it was Jesus delineating between his call to the Jewish people first, and not the Gentiles.
Let’s keep reading.
The woman of Syrophoenician heritage replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And with this, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”
It’s a remarkable interaction. Here she is, seemingly rejected, but nevertheless she persisted, going toe to toe with the same Jesus who consistently outwits the religious leaders, but is seemingly outwitted by her. Whereas Jesus normally responds that it is someone’s faith that has made them whole, here, Jesus says “for saying that” you may go; your daughter has been healed.
And this is where I come back to that idea of perfection meaning completion or completeness. Was Jesus born with all knowledge, or did he have to learn how to read and write and use his left or right hand to eat his soup? Did he have to learn manners and the Scriptures and even how to listen to someone else?
This story seems to be indicating to us that Jesus was still learning, even as he was a minister, even as he was a prophet, even as he was the Christ. He was still learning from other people. He listened to a woman from across the border, and she had an impact on the way he lived and saw the world going forward.
And maybe that’s half the reason why he hung out with the lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes. Maybe it was partly to do with their vantage point in this world. What better way for someone to learn all they can about how this world works well for some and badly for others, than to walk and talk and live with those who haven’t seen everything perfected yet?
In today’s reading, Jesus may have been looking to take a break from it all, but she reminded him that the good news he preaches has impact for everyone and not just the “children” in his quote — the Jewish people, the people of God. In essence, she was appealing to Jesus to heal her daughter as a “child of God,” as well; it shouldn’t matter if she was a Gentile.
Jesus seems to have heard her message.
He heals her daughter.
And following this he heals another Gentile, a deaf man.
Jesus moves forward with a new perspective, an expanded perspective, like a telescope unfolding. His ministry might be to the people of God in Judea, but God’s inbreaking reality is actually for all children of God. For all people.
And isn’t that the message we tried to communicate yesterday by joining our footsteps with those of others in our city? To say that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or lesbian or straight or cis or trans or bi or queer, all that matters is that you know that you matter to us and to God. We are a church — a group of allies and LGBTQ+ folks — who are saying we don’t have everything figured out yet, but we’re still trying. And one significant way that we can show that you matter to God and to us is by listening to your truth and lived experience — by trusting you to help us see new glimpses and hear new perspectives and figure out more about this God we all worship.
A chapter before today’s story, Jesus performs one of those miracles most have us have heard about. He feeds 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and fish. He blesses it and the disciples pass it around and it multiplies. And there are twelve baskets of bread left over.
A chapter after today’s story, Jesus again performs this miracle, only it’s with 4,000 mostly Gentile people. And after he blesses the meal and they pass it around, there are seven baskets of bread left over.
And not long after this, Jesus and the disciples hop back in a boat headed for Jewish territory, and the disciples start whispering about the lone loaf of bread they have with them for the ride back.
And it’s here that Jesus says, “Why are you talking about the fact that you don’t have any bread? Do you not grasp what has happened?”
On the surface, maybe Jesus was reminding them that he knows where the bread is hidden and how to find it. Let me bless it, and you’ll have enough.
But I like what Dr. Barbara Lundblad, a professor at Union Seminary, suggests.
She says, “He [meaning Jesus] wants the disciples (and us) to remember what has happened in these feeding stories. There was food in abundance, with leftovers (crumbs) — twelve baskets for the people of Israel and seven for the Gentiles. Jesus is teaching his disciples the lesson he learned from the Syrophoenician woman. Listen to her!”
As if her comments were still percolating in his head, Jesus was simultaneously taking them to heart. There is enough to go around. For the Jewish people and the Gentiles. And it had little to do with the one loaf of bread they had in their boat, and it had everything to do with the imagery it piqued. That of a kingdom of God’s that was being perfected in their midst, expanding, growing, moving toward its completion, where not just a chosen few people of God, but every child of God, even Gentiles, even we, matter to God.
Was Jesus perfect?
I’ll leave that for you to decide. But the way he was willing to listen to someone else’s point of view, especially someone without privilege or proximity to power, someone in need and rarely taken seriously or even remembered, seems like growth to me. Moving toward a purpose or goal. He may not have been complete in his knowledge at this moment in his life, or someone might say he may not have been perfect in this moment if we’re using this definition of everything being consummated and complete, but he was nonetheless perfecting in this moment.
And that seems like something we should emulate. His example of listening, and her example of speaking her truth.
So, that’s what we’re going to do together. Over the next several weeks, we are going to embark on a series of sermons, and midweek discussions that we’ll be calling Brave Conversations, Bold Congregation.
What does it mean to be a Christian? Over these sermons, we’ll talk about ideas or issues or ways of living as Christians that require us to be brave, and we’ll follow her example. Millennia later, let us listen to her. She spoke her truth, so we are going to create safe spaces to do the same together. And just as Jesus did, we will cultivate brave spaces of listening to one another, so we can learn and grow; so we can move forward toward a goal, an aim; so we can become more complete people, a perfecting people, maturing followers of Jesus.
We might not have everything figured out, and that’s okay.
Just long as we’re still trying.
Prayers of the People
Take a few moments to reflect on what you heard.
What is percolating in your mind right now?
What is resonating with your heart?
Who do you need to begin listening to?
What perspectives do you truly not understand, and what can you do to learn?
Who do you need to begin listening to you?
What in you still needs to be perfected, completed, unfurled? Those imperfections that aren’t defects or errors, but areas for growth and forward momentum?
O Perfect Christ,who knows our needs, be kind to us this day. Grant us humility to recognize where we are imperfect and grant us courage to continue to grow. Give us faith that you will complete the good work in us that you have already begun.
Make us safe friends for one another, with compassion that welcomes people speaking their truth. And make us brave friends who listen with open minds and open hearts.
There is healing for us in this world, by the miracle of your grace, bread of heaven abundant for us. There is healing for our woundedness with our care for one another.
Teach us to listen, teach us to speak truth.
And let us walk forward together in humility, courage, and love.
Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA on Sept 9, 2018
First sermon in series: Brave Conversations, Bold Congregation
Barbara Lundblad, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, 384.