Be perfect as God is perfect: clarifying a misconception
As I was preparing for my last sermon a couple weeks ago, it led me to Jesus’ preaching from “the mount” and to a somewhat well known passage:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in Heaven is perfect. – Matthew 5:48
Which I was taught was either a call to an unattainable standard or a call to trust in Jesus to make us perfect – but either way, the application was usually, be more perfect, seek greater perfection. But this is not what Jesus was saying.
This scripture comes at the end of a series of teachings from Jesus, in which he says, “You have heard it said…” but “I say to you…” And even with those, I’ve listened to earnest preachers say that Jesus was calling his disciples to a higher standard. This is not what Jesus was doing.
If you look at each of the teachings, you will notice a very clear theme: Where the Pharisees focused the right action, Jesus called his disciples to focus on right relationship. The Pharisees say don’t murder (right action), I say don’t even call a fool, but go and make the relationship better (right relationship). The Pharisees say do not commit adultery (right action), I say don’t even leer lustily at them (right relationship)… it is not a higher standard, it is a different standard.
I could go on, with divorce and oaths and retaliation. In each of these, Jesus focuses on the relational impact rather than ‘letter of the law’ righteous action.
Finally, Jesus sums up his teaching with this summary:
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…. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The new command here is not “be perfect”, the Pharisees demanded perfectly right actions.The new command is “as your heavenly father is perfect” or a better way to say it ” be perfect in the same way as your heavenly father”. Jesus just told us that God cares relationally for his enemies (the evil) as well his friends (the good), and so we should love the same way.
It is a call to not follow the Pharisee’s perfection of right action, but instead to follow God’s example of perfection: right relationships. Right relationship does mean some right actions, but behaving rightly is not the point; being in right relationship with God, each other and creation… that’s the point. That’s the whole gospel.