At the start of an interview with America magazine last year, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The Pope paused a moment before saying, “I am a sinner,” and then went on to clarify: “…but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
Perhaps you, like me, take heart at these words, which sound like the fruit of hard experience, not the stale repetition of some pretty formula. Perhaps you, like me, know the wounds – many of them meticulously concealed – of broken relationships, the compounded result of a willful and persistent alienation from God and God’s Creation. Yet the maker of the Universe regards Francis, me, and you, and mercifully refuses to let our “no” be the final word. Though we’ve devoted much time and energy to severing our bonds of connection, God has not, does not, will not.
This Sunday’s readings – instructions and reminders to flawed communities about the difficult practices of proper relationship – are written for sinners whom the Lord has looked upon. The people of Israel need reminders not to rape the land of all its goods lest the poor have nothing, an injunction flowing seamlessly into prohibitions of theft, deceit, fraud, insult, unjust judgment, slander, hate, vengeance, and holding grudges. This is not a laundry list of sins, but a brief survey of poisons released when humans live as if unrelated to fellow creatures.
And if you, like me, sometimes think yourself more sensitive to such matters than the People of Israel, it helps to remember that Christians are no more than wild shoots grafted onto the good olive tree God chose and cultivated (Romans 11). I could teach the wandering Israelites a thing or two about stiff-necked waywardness. Like the Pharisees in John 9, I say that I see and my sin remains. How often do I traffic in relational poisons and call it virtue, worldly wisdom, or “Christian” realism? I’m no fool. Like any right-thinking American bourgeois liberal, I stand in solidarity with the poor up until the moment it costs me something.
Jesus only make it worse when he probes with rabbinical precision to the beating heart of Torah and demands I turn the other cheek to an assailant, surrender all my clothes when asked for a few, and carry someone else’s stuff twice as long as I’m forced to. Yes, I know Walter Wink’s interpretative reframing of this passage as an inversion of imperial power structures, but I was raised American. It’s no skin off my nose to talk about and even practice nonviolence as an effective political resistance technique. The skin starts to come off when I’m struck again, stripped naked, driven further down the road I didn’t choose – and I don’t like it.
And what about this business about loving enemies? There’s a Buddhist tchotchke shop in my neighborhood that sells all sorts of spiritual merchandise to a predominantly young, white, and materially comfortable clientele. The window once featured a bumper sticker that read, “Love your enemies and you won’t have any,” to which I silently responded, “O, to be young, stupid, and arrogant again!” Yet, in defiance of all experience, I cling to the delusion that praying for people I don’t like or who’ve done me ill will change them.
Jesus makes no such promise. What he does is ask the impossible. Give Niebuhrians, like the current President of the US, credit for saying as much. This side of the grave, being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is as likely as taking a hike on the Sun. Even when I recall that the Greek word translated here as “perfect” (teleioi/teleios) means “complete, whole, fulfilled, lacking nothing, mature, full grown” as well as “perfect,” I know I’m none of these things.
Yet God refuses to let me leave it at that. Like a good parent, God ignores my temper tantrums, willfulness, and misbehavior, reminds me how those in “complete, whole, and mature,” relationships behave, encourages me to form these hard practices into habits, and permits me to suffer the natural consequences of waywardness. I get things wrong, however, if I imagine these forms of God’s conduct as merely or even primarily instrumental or pedagogical. God is Trinitarian relationship, and every encounter with God’s mercy beckons me toward Trinitarian wholeness and relationship.
Not that there’s some effective technique at work here. Get over that. As the early desert mothers and fathers understood, every step towards the Trinity’s immensity further discloses the yawning chasm between that fullness and me. Yet, despite my persistent failures, every bit as certain as death and taxes, God still looks upon me, regards me, forgets my sinfulness and renews our still unbroken bonds of unity and affection. The only grounds upon which we dare to hope we might become whole, perfect, and teleioi is that God is whole, perfect, and teleios.