Be Thou Perfect

Perfection is not a static state of self-satisfaction. It not only permits growth, it requires growth. Did not Christ grow in wisdom and stature? (Luke 2:52)
—Howard Brinton
Friends for 300 Years

In this lucid definition of the Quaker concept of perfection, Howard Brinton refers to a verse from the Gospel of Luke as illustration. If Jesus "increased in wisdom and stature" in the course of his lifetime (as Luke 2:52 says), then his "perfection" must have been a growing process rather than a finished state. This is a hopeful perspective for modern Friends as we try to redefine perfection for ourselves. Many of us reject the very word for its implications of static self-satisfaction or unrealistic and self-defeating standards of behavior imposed by some outside authority. But any true definition of perfection must allow for growth—for the creative capacity to change our beliefs and our very selves as new wisdom becomes available to us. To live up to this larger, more flexible idea of perfection we must be capable of welcoming the opportunity to grow and learn. True perfection requires an acceptance of our present imperfections, an acknowledgment that we can always know more than we know now, that we can always grow more.

Before I go on to use Jesus of Nazareth as an example of this very human kind of perfection, I should state my own biases. I think of Jesus as a human being with exceptional personal grace and compassion, someone who had a profound relationship to the Divine but was not uniquely divine himself. I feel that he can be a guide and model for us precisely because he was essentially like us, not innately and absolutely superior. I hope that those who see Jesus as the one Christ will not take offense at my interpretation of his actions as depicted in the Gospels, but will try instead to imagine that I am writing only about the human aspect of the Christ they know and revere. Although I myself do not find reason to believe that Jesus was of a different order from ourselves, I accept that my knowledge may be mistaken and is certainly limited. Probably, we would all agree that the historical Jesus had many human qualities, and it is specifically those human qualities that I would like to discuss here.

If human perfection is possible, as early Friends and many modern Friends contend, then the human Jesus almost certainly exemplified that perfection, regardless of whatever divine qualities he may or may not have embodied. This human kind of perfection, however, is a process of development rather than a final state; the perfection consists not in the end result (if there is such a thing) but in the rising progression of apparently imperfect stages along the way. For Jesus to "increase in wisdom and stature," he had to go through stages of lesser wisdom, lesser stature, in human terms at least.

A story is told in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew that illustrates this perfection-through-imperfection wonderfully. While it shows Jesus in a rather imperfect light (at least by today’s standards), it also gives us an opportunity to see him in the process of growing:

For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.
—Mark 7:25-29 (King James Version)

And, behold, a woman of Canaan . . . cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
—Matthew 15:22-28 (King James Version)

What is happening in these verses? Mark is rather circumspect, and it is difficult to tell why Jesus at first refuses the woman and why her answer leads him to change his mind. But in Matthew, the story becomes clearer. Though the woman’s nationality is different in the two versions, both emphasize the fact that she was not an Israelite, that she was a Gentile, a stranger. It is for this and nothing else that Jesus scorns her: he refers to his own people as "children" and to her people as "dogs." This was certainly in line with the popular views of his time and his community; neighboring nations had been at war for centuries, and there was much bitterness. For Jesus to voice this bitterness in a way that amounts to ordinary bigotry contradicts all that we know of his character. How can it be that the man who spoke for the outcast, ignoring social, national, and even spiritual distinctions and refusing no one, can dismiss this woman with what sounds like self-righteous superiority when she asks for his help? When I first read this and realized what I was reading, I was shocked at the bluntness of it.

The story does not end, however, with the dismissal. Strangely, it is the woman who displays the more traditionally Christ-like perfection of speech and action. She responds to Jesus with a humility, forbearance, and grace that reaches him. Both versions of the story emphasize the metaphor that he introduces and she eloquently transforms. Her response expresses the value of the bread and her respect for the provider of that bread without challenging him in his statement that the bread is only for the children of Israel. She even accepts the epithet of "dog," while quietly reiterating her request for help, even if it is only crumbs. The mildness of this response is genuine, yet the woman is also employing a traditional rhetorical tactic by which elders in many communities apply discipline through gently reproachful acquiescence rather than punishment, so that those who have behaved inappropriately may come to understand for themselves (and admit publicly) that they have made a mistake. The woman shows great skill in the way that she makes her point without expressing anger or humiliation, and especially without evoking defensiveness or hostility in others.

The real point of the story, I believe, is that Jesus hears her, learns from her, and grows—not only because of how well she speaks, but because of his openness, his lack of rigidity. Instead of defending his position, Jesus listens, and superbly demonstrates perfection in practice. In these particular verses we only see that he rewards her for her "faith" by granting her request, but elsewhere, everywhere, we see the results in Jesus himself. Perhaps this story illustrates the very moment when Jesus lets go of the usual prejudices of his community and opens himself to a new understanding regarding people of other nations and religions. And what is most impressive here is not the healing of the woman’s daughter, but the ease with which Jesus accepts correction and makes immediate changes based on what he has learned.

Often, in studies of Scripture, these particular verses are passed over rather quickly, since they may seem at first to challenge our idea of an always sensitive, generous, and compassionate Christ-figure. How did Jesus, the human being, come by this sensitivity, generosity, and compassion in a world that was (and is) often explicitly unfair, selfish, and harsh? Only through a capacity to grow and learn from mistakes, to be guided by the good to be found in others, even when this meant relinquishing comfortable certainties, admitting the possibility of being wrong. These verses tell us that Jesus’ perfection consisted not in holding the "right" views innately, but in a willingness to discover for himself what was right, not only through his experience of God, but also through the guidance of other human beings (and God in other human beings)— even, and perhaps especially, those considered socially and spiritually "inferior."

As Friends today consider how we may "be therefore perfect" (Matthew 5:48), the key, perhaps, may lie in how willing we are to listen and to be changed by what we hear, how willing we are to accept a condition of perpetual learning and renewal of our essential knowledge. In order to grow, and in order to be perfect, we must allow our certainties to be challenged so that we do not become locked into a static state of self-satisfaction. Perfection may mean that when we encounter our own imperfections, we allow our imagination and generosity of spirit to come into play rather than responding automatically with righteous, self-protective indignation.

The generosity of spirit exhibited by Jesus in response to the woman in this story is all the more perfect because he had to learn it, had to open himself to receive wisdom from an unexpected source. I like to think that there was a distinct moment when he heard and understood that she not only was asking him for crumbs and for her daughter’s healing, but also was asking him to change—and that this moment of hearing, understanding, and then actually changing was meaningful and wonderful for Jesus himself: a breakthrough, a moment of perfect joy.

Kirsten Backstrom

Kirsten Backstrom, a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oregon, is a frequent contributor to Friends Journal.