February 22, 2019

Perfect Stranger

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Ps. 145:8-9 

When Moses went up the mountain with two tablets of stone to receive the ten commandments and God passed before him, Moses heard God's self-revelation: יהוה ,יהוה, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness... [Exod. 34:6]. These words to describe God were repeated no less than five more times in the Hebrew Bible, including here by David in Psalm 145. If we read a bit further in God's self-revelation to Moses, we see that these words were spoken in the context of God's covenant with a particular people. And so when Psalm 145 follows this revelation with a more general proclamation that God is good, not just to Israel but to all people, this is noteworthy.

The gods of other people, like Israel's God, were thought to have special relationships with the people who worshiped them. But the claim that Israel's God was maker of all, was good to all, and had compassion on all was the greatest proof of God's grace and mercy imaginable.

In the Sermon on the Mount we see the very same claim about God, but when Jesus talks about it, he helps us see that this has implications for the way we treat each other:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matt. 5:43-48]
And it should be noted here that the word perfect isn't perfect in the way we usually interpret that word. The best way to think of it is the phrase perfect stranger. I have used that term, but I've never meant to imply that any stranger was a sinless human being, or a person without physical blemish. What I mean by that is complete stranger, i.e. someone I've never met before.

And that's what the Greek word used here—τελειος—means: complete, fully mature, adult. The belief that this word means without sin has misled many people over the centuries and led to whole theological systems that border on legalism. It's much healthier—and in my opinion much more correct—to hear Jesus telling us: Be whole, just as your heavenly Father is said to be whole.

And that fits the context here beautifully. God desires wholeness for me, and that cannot really be a reality if I divide the world up between friends and enemies, wishing the best for some while wishing the worst for others. Just as Israel's God is a God that blesses all people, so I should pray for blessing on all people.

The earth is not divided up into independent ecosystems which have no effect on each other. We're all interrelated, and wholeness can only be realized if we stop pretending that there is such a person as the other, and that there exist creatures that don't matter in the scheme of things. God sees no national borders, is good to all, and has compassion over all that God has made—not just all people, but all. Period.

And so Psalm 145:8-9 is not simply an affirmation. It is a call to action. If God is good to all and compassionate toward all, then how should I, a creature made in the Image of God, behave toward not some, but all?

I thank you for your goodness, Lord. By your grace, may I, too, be filled with love and compassion for my neighbors near and far, dealing with them not as I've been taught to by my culture, but as you deal with them. In the Name of the One who taught me to love both neighbor and enemy, and who taught me to pray...

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