The following statement may not be true of everyone on the planet, but I think it is true of most: human beings like to know the standard by which they will be judged. Whether it is a math test, marital vows, or a job description, it is helpful to know what constitutes good work and what sort of actions would bring about the need for remediation.
Sometimes, those standards are easy: get more than 70% of the answers right, and you’ll be OK. Other times, it can be more elusive: what exactly does it mean to “honor” someone? Sometimes, the bar is set very low. I once heard the story of a boss who told an employee on their first day of work, “All I really need you to do is show up to work on time.” By lunchtime, the new employee had decided that was just too much to handle. Other times, the bar is incredibly high. I remember during my final year of seminary when VTS was in search for its next Dean and President, we joked that the job description had them looking for Jesus Christ with PhD.
The latter is the case in both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany. In the passage from Matthew, we hear the final third of Jesus’ six anti-theses of the Law. Through the homiletical device of “You have heard it said… but I say…” Jesus took the Law and dug down to its foundation, inviting his disciples to a much higher standard. In fact, by the end of the these six injunctions that Jesus comes right out and tells us the standard by which we will be judged, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word that gets translated as “perfect” is the Greek word “telos” which means something different than our modern idea of perfect. Instead, it is more like the completeness of something, the goal, the reason for its existence. When Jesus invites his disciples to live into their telos just as God the Father is telos, he is, I think, hearkening back to the words that God spoke to Moses in the lesson from Leviticus. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The “you” there is plural, meaning the people of Israel and not just Moses himself. Here’s where living in the south really comes in handy. God says, “All y’all shall be be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Our telos is holiness, sacredness, set apart for God. It would be easy to feel like this is yet another impossible standard to live up to, but the reality is that we have help. God’s telos is perfect relationship. We have been created in that image such that God living into God’s telos will help us to live into ours. God is always searching us out, always inviting us into deeper relationship, always willing to forgive our sins so that we might once again be made holy. It is God’s very nature to invite us back in so that we might live into our telos. The bar might feel high, but thanks be to God we know what the expectations are and have God’s help in living up to them.