"As You Wish": A Reflection on (Not) Being Perfect.
This sermon, based on Mt. 5:38-48, was preached at Knox Presbyterian church on Feb. 19, 2017
Once upon a time, a young woman named Buttercup, was in love with a farm boy named Westley. When Buttercup asks him to do work around the farm, he always answers “as you wish” but when he’s saying “as you wish”, he really means “I love you”.
Do you know this story? It’s The Princess Bride, a famous fairy tale spoof from 1987.
In the story, Buttercup realizes she loves Westley, too, and Westley goes off to seek his fortune, so he can marry Buttercup, but he never comes back. Brokenhearted, Buttercup gives up waiting for him, and is forced to accept the evil prince Humperdinck’s marriage proposal.
Then, before her wedding to Humperdinck, a rag tag band of marauders kidnaps Buttercup. The leader of the band is a very small man who thinks he’s very smart, called Vizzini; a Giant named Fezzik, and a Spanish swordsman named Inigo Montoya.
As they escape with possession of Buttercup in a ship over the sea, they start getting trailed by a mysterious man in black. The leader of the marauders just can’t believe anyone could follow them. “Inconceivable”, he says. As the man in black gets closer and closer to catching them, Vizzini still says “Inconceivable”. Finally, they reach the Cliffs of Insanity. They all load up on the back of the giant, who carries them hand over hand up a rope.
The man in black begins to climb the rope up after them. “Inconceivable”, says Vizzini. He cuts the rope, hoping to send the man in black plummeting. Instead, the man in black catches hold of the cliff and begins to climb again. “Inconceivable”, says Vizzini. Then, the spaniard turns to him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I love this line. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.
It’s such a useful phrase. There’s a whole internet meme where people take the photo of the Spaniard and change the words around. Like, “Literally. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Or, “You keep saying ‘Irony”. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
All internet snarkiness aside, I’ve been thinking about this phrase because of verse from Matthew this week, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I paused over this line for a long time. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
When I think of “perfect”, I think of a sort of “holier than thou” attitude. Or, like, someone who always wears the right clothes and never has a bad hair day or spinach in their teeth. I couldn’t put that picture together with the Jesus of Nazareth who was born in a stable and hung out with tax collectors, fishermen, unruly women, and the generally unwashed. What does being perfect have to do with these people?
Then I thought to myself: “Perfect. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Perfect. It doesn’t mean what I think it means. It can mean “without fault” but it doesn’t just mean that. Perfect also means “whole” and “complete”.
And, if you like looking at the original Greek, it still means “complete”, like “full grown” or “mature” or reaching your full potential.
This section of Matthew is a central part Jesus’ ministry, from a very famous “sermon” called “The Sermon on the Mount”. Jesus has gathered his disciples to him and we might imagine Jesus sitting on a hillside (since it’s the sermon on the mount), reclining on a grassy slope, in the warm sunshine, speaking to his disciples who are almost exclusively young (probably under 30 years old), poor Jewish men. They are living under Roman occupation, under Roman law, where the Roman soldiers could strike them or force them to march with gear and if the disciples resisted, they would be punished terribly.
So, Jesus instructs the disciples on how to handle violence against them in a non-violent subversive way (according to theologian Marcus Borg in "The True Meaning of Turn the Other Cheek"). In Roman times, the Roman soldiers could strike an “inferior” person across the right cheek with the back of the right hand, which was the way a “superior” hit an “inferior”. But, if you turn the other cheek, the Roman soldier would be forced to strike you with the right fist on the left cheek or use an open left hand. In Roman custom, you only hit a social equal with the right fist and it was “unseemly” to use the left hand. In turning the other cheek, a disciple being hit right fist to left cheek was essentially making the statement that he was the social equal of the Roman soldier, if the soldier wanted to continue the beating.
That is not all (says theologian Marcus Borg): “The sayings about "going the second mile" and "giving your cloak to one who sues you for your coat" make a similar point: they suggest creative non-violent ways of protesting oppression.
Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.
If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you.” These are three examples of subversive, non-violent ways to challenge violence against peasants (such as Jews); Jesus is giving his disciples examples of how to strategically resist oppressive Roman law.
If this seems foreign, all this talk of Roman law, we can remember that Martin Luther King used the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation to his passive resistance during the civil rights era. King said:
…it’s significant that [Jesus] does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape [i.e. God-given love] in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
King, like Jesus, was asking people to be spiritually mature under brutal conditions in order to bring about change in the world. Jesus and King were asking for very mature, grown up responses to almost impossible situation. It’s a long term strategy for forcing all of society to grow up.
Perhaps, our challenge as disciples today - as it was in Jesus’ time and as it was for Martin Luther King - is to think less about being perfect and more about being spiritually mature
How do we do that?
I don’t know. It’s so unsatisfying to get to the end of sermon and realize I have no definitive answers. The world seems to be changing so fast, but I’m hoping that for today it’s enough to ask the question and get a conversation going. I think being thoughtful about exploring the teachings of Jesus is a good starting point for spiritual maturity.
Perhaps, in reflecting on the scripture for today, you’ll take away a different meaning and want to say to me, “That scripture verse. I do not think it means what you think it means” and we can talk about it some more, work it out peacefully together as thoughtful disciples.
Yes, phew, we made it all the way back where we started with The Princess Bride. In the story of the The Princess Bride the “good news” is - spoiler alert - we have a happy ending and true love wins. If “as you wish” in life means “I love you” as it does in the film, perhaps we might say “I love you to God” by saying “as you wish” to God’s will for us to grow and develop as spiritual people.
The “good news” of the Christian story is: true love - the “inconceivable” love that Jesus has for the world overcomes all evil. It’s up to us to answer him “as you wish, Lord, as you wish.”