In the movie Collateral, Jamie Foxx plays the unlucky cab driver taken hostage for a night by Tom Cruise’s contract killer. Early in the film, we learn that driving a cab isn’t Foxx’s ultimate ambition; what he wants to do is to start a company called “Island Limos,” a limousine service so luxurious and relaxing that “you won’t want to get out at the airport.” He’s driving the cab, he says to a woman he’s trying to impress, to get his Benz off its lease, to set up the right client list…to make sure everything’s perfect.
Later in the film, when everything has begun to fall apart, Cruise needles Foxx about the fact that he’s been driving the cab for eight years, unable to pull the trigger on starting his limo company. Foxx gets angrier and angrier (muttering “It has to be perfect…it has to be perfect” to himself), eventually saying, “You know what…just (expletive) it,” crashing the taxi into a median and propelling the story toward its bloody climax.
Such is the violent assault that “perfection” mounts. Perfection stands above the fray of our daily lives and says, “You’re not quite ready yet,” “You’re not good enough yet,” and “You’ll fail unless you improve.”
When Andrew Carnegie was asked how much money was enough, he said, “Just a little more.” So it is with the pursuit of perfection. It is, by its very nature, unattainable. What’s perfect? Just a little bit better. That’s why it’s such an affront to us that Jesus calls his followers to “be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The Father’s perfection stands as an enduring judgment upon our imperfection. His call to selflessness shines a light on our selfishness. His call to love shines a light on our hate. Island Limos stands as the permanent condemnation of Jamie Foxx’s life. As long as he’s driving a cab, he’s not perfect, and…you know what, just (expletive) it. We often feel the same way (expletive included) when confronted with the demand to be perfect.
That’s the irony of the pursuit of perfection: it doesn’t inspire, it paralyzes. We imagine that a good, far-off goal is just the thing we need to get us moving. And what goal is further off than Christ-likeness? We tell ourselves, “I know I’ll never achieve it, but it’ll be a good thing to work towards.” The problem is that it’s not a good thing to work towards: it will lead inevitably to stagnation, frustration, and resignation.
The pursuit of perfection is life under the Law. “Be perfect” is the Law sharpened to its most deadly point. The Gospel, as it always does, diverts that point. The Gospel offers a perfect life given to us. We are Jamie Foxx, still sitting in our cabs, afraid to get out there…and fail. Though we deserve that stinging point of the Law, that condemning voice constantly reminding us that we’re “not good enough,” it embeds itself in Christ on the cross. Though he deserves eternal reward, his perfection comes to us. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Luther said that the quest for glory could never be satisfied; only extinguished. Similarly, perfection can never be achieved; only given. In the Gospel, it has been.