Upon reading the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, o ne might be tempted to say; Jesus, you are impossible!  How can saying that be justified?  Very simply, because he does the unimaginable and seems to make impossible demands of his followers.

Who, in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago, would have imagined that the seemingly impossible had occurred, that God had entered the world as an infant?  And more, that God was born of a virgin  in a lowly, unsanitary stable, utterly dependent on two mortals.  Who in Jerusalem on the first Good Friday would have imagined that the one dying the death of a criminal on Calvary would rise gloriously three days later?  Who would have imagined that the Savior of the world would spend thirty years leading a hidden, uneventful life in an obscure village of dubious reputation?  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The life of Jesus is a paradox. His brief public life was characterized by ambiguity.  While he attracted followers he also experienced strong opposition and rejection by    the religious leaders of his time.  He is proposed as the Messiah, King, and Son of God.   But his throne is a cross, his courtiers two thieves, and his subjects are enemies who want to kill him.  The only one present at the end who recognizes him as the Son of God is a soldier who comes to see the truth only after Jesus had died.  It is not easy to recognize the Messiah in all of that.  To a great extent the divinity of Jesus remained hidden.  Only once, on Mount tabor, did the divinity of Jesus shine through his human nature.  Sometimes Jesus seemed intent on hiding his divinity, instructing people he had miraculously cured not to tell anyone.

To the literal minded the demands Jesus makes on his followers are impossible.  Jesus told his followers: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5: 48)  On the surface that is surely an impossible demand. Aspiring to be perfect as God seems at best highly presumptuous, at worst blasphemous.   Some translations seem to soften that demand e.g. the new Jerusalem Bible which reads: “You must therefore set no bounds to your love just as your heavenly Father sets none on his.  (Mt. 5:48)

We need to remember the gospels are not self-explanatory.  There is always a need to interpret.  Thus it is important to determine what the word “perfect” means in the context of Jesus’ words.  What meaning did the word have for a Jew of Matthew’s time?  It is quite different from the meaning of the English word which is defined as “entirely without fault or defect.”  For a Jew of Matthew’s time it could not mean absolutely flawless.  Only God is perfect in that sense.  Rather it meant “all together, whole, at peace with oneself and with God. “  The passage represents an impossibility if taken in the literal sense of the English word.  As understood by a Jew of Jesus’ time it represents some-thing possible.  Taking that passage literally in the current English sense would condemn a person to agonizing over an unattainable goal.

C.S.Lewis Has a helpful suggestion in this regard.  In his book Mere Christianity, He pointed out that we need not become discouraged in the face of what seems to be God’s demand for perfection, however that is understood, even as we recognize the weakness of our attempts and our frequent failures.  The reason is our God is a forgiving God.  Each time we fail God is ready to forgive.

We believe God is always ready to give us the grace to stand up again after a fall and to continue our journey toward union with him.   The crucial thing is not to give up, to keep trying to remain open to God’s grace which is always and everywhere available.  Falling is not the worst thing.  The worst thing is staying on the ground.  A classic example is Judas.  His betrayal of Jesus was not his greatest mistake.  His greatest mistake was his failure to urn to the Lord for forgiveness. God’s will is to bring us to perfection i.e.    to complete union with him.  Nothing can prevent us from reaching that goal except ourselves.

Luke (18:1) quotes Jesus as telling his followers:  “Pray continuously and never lose hear.”   How can one pray without ever taking a break? What kind of Prayer is Jesus asking of his followers?  Surely, it is a question of on-going attitude , of disposition rather than of repetition of vocal prayers.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” (Mt. 5:44)  Sometimes it is hard enough to love one’s own family members, relatives, and friends. The normal reaction to enemies and persecutors is hatred.  Jesus reinforces that demand saying: “Don’t kill!  Don’t even get angry or insult another person!  Rather be quick to make up with the offender.”   (Mt. 5: 21-26)  Jesus turns the old law of retribution of an eye for an ey, a tooth for a tooth, upside down.  Jesus is saying don’t retaliate at all. Turn the other cheek.  Walk the second mile.  (Mt 5: 38-42)  Again something, if not impossible, at least of enormous difficulty.  Our instinct is to devise various ways to repay one who has hurt us.

Eat my flesh and drink my blood!”   That exhortation seemed so impossible that some, upon hearing it, turned away from following Jesus.  In the face of such demands one is tempted to protest their impossibility and then make no real effort to do what Jesus asks.

There is a Chinese saying according to which one must be hollowed out in order to become full.  A Christian equivalent is found in Mk. 8: 36.  “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” This represents a final seemingly impossible demand of Jesus, losing one’s life for his sake.  For some, meeting this demand of Jesus is accomplished by physical death of martyrdom.  For most, it is a call to the slow martyrdom of dying to self, of dying to the self-will of sin.  Only with God’s grace does that become possible.

Why does Jesus demand the seemingly impossible?  It must be to bring us to under-stand we cannot do those things without his help.  Our efforts unaided by grace will remain fruitless.  According to an old Irish saying “there is an ebb and flow to every-thing, except God’s grace.”  Grace is always and everywhere available. What then is our role?  We must be completely open to God’s grace.  We must strive to remove any obstacles to it coming into our lives.  Only then can we meet the seemingly impossible demands of Jesus.