Cambridge, MA. This Sunday’s Gospel prompts two considerable reflections by Swami Prabhavananda, the first regarding nonviolence (which I treated in my last blog), and the second regarding the command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5.48) As for this second text, if you have been following this series, you will not be surprised that here too the Swami finds a deep philosophical and spiritual insight. He takes it to be “the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount” and indeed the theme that is “at the heart of every religion: Seek perfection! Realize God!” Divine perfection — being like God to the limit — has no real parallel in this world, impermanent and unsatisfactory as it is. It is easier, he says, to say what God and God’s perfection are not, than what they are.
In his Vedanta tradition, this perfection is expressed in the language of perfect nondualism: the Self (atman) and Ultimate Reality (Brahman) are entirely one: “To discover this true being, or divinity, which lies hidden within oneself, is to become perfect.” But Christ too is pointing to the divinity within us — as in John, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17.23a) or in Paul, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (I Corinthians 3.16), or in the mystic Angelus Silesius, “Christ may be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but if he be not born anew within your own heart, you remain eternally forlorn.”
The task of the spiritual life then is to realize this truth — make it real in one’s own life. There is something to be done. Hence Jesus’ command, “Be perfect and your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Swami then offers a fairly standard modern Hindu understanding of how one becomes perfect — by the paths of service or knowledge or devotion. He suggests too that these ways of perfection are present in the teachings of Jesus, who poses to us the example of service, an awareness of the frailty and limits of his world, and the necessary transition from praying to the Father to realizing, “I and the Father are one.”
Or, still more practically, Prabhavananda concludes, the path of perfection has three steps: First, “wherever the unruly senses and mind wander, we must try to see the Lord.” Second, “we are to practice the ethical virtues taught in the scriptures – virtues such as compassion, non-violence, and chastity.” Third, “we must set aside regular hours for the exclusive practice of prayer and worship,” as St. Paul says, “praying without ceasing.” Such practices awaken and deepen love of God, and allow “the thought of the beloved Lord to be continually in one’s consciousness,” until “the love, lover, and beloved become one.” The end point is the fulfillment of Jesus’ command in this Gospel passage: “The man who experiences this unitary consciousness enters into the kingdom of heaven and becomes perfect even as the Father in heaven is perfect.”
One could write a book or more deciphering Prabhavananda’s Vedantic understanding of the relationship of Jesus and the Father, and of Christians with Christ, and then distinguishing this understanding even from other (less nondualistic) Hindu understandings of the goal of existence. It may also occur to many a reader that Jesus could not possibly have meant all this in commanding that his disciples be perfect as God is perfect.
But even so, we are left with the question, What did Jesus mean in challenging us to be perfect as God is perfect? Prabhavananda’s reading at least has the merit of taking up the challenge with the utter seriousness such a command deserves: the only real human perfection is to enter into the perfection of God: be perfect.
Think about it when you hear the Gospel on Sunday.