There are certain passages of scripture that ministers tend not to preach. They’re not difficult to interpret—but they’re difficult for a congregation (or a preacher) to hear. I’m pretty sure this is one of those passages. I mean, here we are, listening as Jesus commands his disciples—then and now—to do some of the most difficult things imaginable: turn the other cheek, don’t retaliate, love your enemies, pray for those who attack you. We all know this is what we’re supposed to do. We also know that it’s really, really hard for most of us to imagine, let alone carry out with any kind of consistency. But the big kicker is that last verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
And it just hangs in the air. Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect. Rather than end the post with that, I want to start with it. And the reason I want to start with it is that it includes the word “therefore,” which means that being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect is the key to understanding the reason for everything that Jesus has just commanded his disciples to do. Being perfect is the summation of what Jesus has just said.
In order to understand what Jesus is demanding of us, when he commands us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, we need to clearly understand that statement’s key word: perfect.
Good grief, Jesus! Are you serious? You’re demanding perfection of us?
But a huge number of people read this passage and think that’s what Jesus means. In fact, I was surfing around on the internet this week, and found a site where someone had asked what Jesus meant when Jesus told his listeners to be perfect. The answer which had received the most votes of approval said, “He meant exactly what he said. We are to strive for perfection.”
He knows, of course, that we never will be perfect. The idea is to strive for perfection and for holiness by turning away from sin. The best possible way to do this is to emulate Christ and what He taught. This means loving others, refusing to judge others harshly, reaching out to others, and doing good works.” And I sat in my office shouting “Wrong!” at the computer screen, though, of course, the person who gave the answer couldn’t hear me. In fact, that answer is not only wrong; it’s arguably heretical. The false teaching that humanity is able to achieve—and should therefore strive for—perfection is commonly called “Pelagianism” after the gifted theologian who lived during the late fourth and early fifth century. Though Pelagius gets a bad rap, and even his opponents agreed that he was a brilliant theologian, his rejection of Saint Augustine’s doctrine of original sin got him declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage in the year 418. Despite this, Pelagianism is alive and well in the Christian church. It is, arguably, the basis for the Arminianism we find in Methodism and the holiness movement, and also deeply ingrained in Roman Catholic doctrine. In fact, the person writing the internet response I just quoted identified herself as a Roman Catholic, and finished her response by saying, “Until we are perfected, we cannot enter heaven, and that’s why we have purgatory.”
I could have offered a more Reformed theological answer, but I didn’t feel like I had the time. But here’s what we need to know about the “perfection” Jesus is asking his listeners to pursue. It is expressly not the complete moral perfection that our English translations imply—or even the moral perfection that ancient Greek philosophers taught their students to pursue. Rather, the Greek word that is translated “perfect” is the word telos, or “end” (that word being defined not only as completion, as in, “I saw the end of the movie,” but more importantly defined as purpose, as in, “the end justifies the means”). Jesus isn’t telling his disciples to be sinless, he’s telling us to serve our purpose wholeheartedly and to completion, as our Father in heaven serves his purpose wholeheartedly and to completion.
What this means is that God has a telos, a goal. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he tells us what that goal is when he writes, “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time: to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8b-10). That is God’s goal—gathering all things in heaven and earth unto himself. In order to accomplish this, he sent his Son, whose ministry of reconciliation makes it possible for sinners like us to be gathered into God’s presence. And in 2 Corinthians, Paul tells us that through Christ, God has now given us the ministry of reconciliation. “That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). Here, Paul tells us that God not only has a telos, which he is achieving through the ministry of Jesus Christ, but that we have a telos, that is, we have a God-given ministry goal, we have a purpose. And that purpose or goal is to share the message of reconciliation entrusted to us.
So when Jesus says to his listeners (and us) “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” what he means is, “Strive to attain your goal of sharing the message of reconciliation, as your Father in heaven is achieving his goal of reconciling all of creation unto himself.” You see, that’s what happens when you bring into the conversation not just one verse pulled out of the context of a larger sermon, but all that scripture has to say about God’s will for creation. It takes knowing that the Greek word telos doesn’t mean “perfection,” it means “fulfillment;” and it takes Paul’s help to explain to us elsewhere in scripture what God’s telos, and ours, is.
Matthew uses this same word in one other place in his Gospel. In chapter 19, Jesus says to a rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). If you wish to be perfect—that is, if you wish to fulfill your purpose as part of God’s plan for the world—then sell your possessions, give everything away, and come follow me.
Now, I said in the beginning that the reason to talk about this last verse first was because of the word “therefore.” And the reason I said that is that by using the word “therefore,” Matthew is indicating that this last verse is a summary of everything that has gone before. So we can ask the question, “What does Jesus mean when he tells us to strive for the fulfillment of our goal, as our father in heaven is striving for the fulfillment of his goal?” and the answer to that question is all of the antitheses that Jesus has given so far in his Sermon on the Mount. Anger is murder; lust is adultery; breaking vows lacks integrity; speak nothing but the truth; do not retaliate when attacked; love your enemies. You know… “do your job, like God is doing his.”
So while Jesus doesn’t mean “perfect” the way we use the word perfect, that doesn’t make this commandment any easier. What he’s saying is, “To sum up the ethical principles of the Kingdom of God: fulfill your role in God’s plan for the world.” Because while we cannot make the world a perfect place—only God can do that—those who are called into membership in the body of Christ are not called to sit on their butts and wait for God to get his act together. God has called us into the church not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of the world. The Church isn’t just some country club! It’s the body of Christ, called to glorify God by living Jesus’ message of reconciliation at every opportunity.
The Sermon on the Mount, to this point, has been an effort to lay the ethical groundwork for accomplishing our goal. First, Jesus called his disciples to understand the Law in a new way: not as a burdensome list of dos and don’ts, but as a gift of grace—guidelines for developing a just and loving society. Beginning with my next post, Jesus will begin to talk about the piety or the best practices of being a Christian in the world. And so this one sentence, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect,” is really the hinge that holds two parts of the sermon together.
We all know that the Old Testament gives the rule, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex.21:24-25). Moses wasn’t the first to come up with that rule, actually. The Code of Hammurabi, which predates the Law of Moses, also says something similar. What is often forgotten—especially when it’s invoked in court or in a debate about capital punishment—is that the rule is intended not to be permissive, but to be limiting. The rule is designed to avoid escalating violence. If I didn’t follow this rule, and you punched me in the mouth, I might retaliate by burning your house down. This rule is designed to ensure that the most I do in retaliation is punch you back.
But Jesus does the same thing here that he did with his rule about divorce, mentioned in my last post. On that subject, he says in the Sermon on the Mount,
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Later in Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees argue with Jesus about his divorce teaching, and Jesus says, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8-9).
In other words, Moses made up the divorce rule to make life easier for those who simply couldn’t live up to the high standards of God’s law. Now, Jesus says the same thing about the retaliation law: that rule only exists because it’s so much harder for people to do what God really wants them to do when attacked, which is nothing. “If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously” (Matt. 5:38-42, The Message).
He goes still further, saying, “You know how the law says to love your neighbor, and how this seems to imply that it’s okay to hate your enemies? Well, I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, rather than the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond by praying a prayer of blessing for them, for then you are behaving like children of God!” Then we are behaving like children of God. Hitting back, hating, and cursing our enemies? All of those things should be beneath us as Christians. Jesus gives the best possible reason to do this: because it’s what God does. We should love our enemies, because God loves them—he gives them the same sunshine and the same rain that he gives to everyone else.
And that’s what leads Jesus to end with, “Be like your heavenly Father. Fulfill your vocation by playing your part in God’s plan to reconcile the world.” As Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase, “In a word, what I’m saying is Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Matt. 5:48, The Message).
So what difference might it make if we took this interpretive tack with this passage: being urged by Jesus to live into our God-given identity as the blessed and beloved children of God who, really knowing and believing and feeling we are loved, might then be able to love others as children of the kingdom? While the law is God’s gift to us, showing us how to live justly and lovingly (if taken as a matter of the heart), Jesus does not command his disciples to turn the Roman empire into a so-called “Christian nation.” That does eventually happen, but to be honest with you, becoming the official religion of the Roman empire was the Jesus Movement’s undoing. We have not been what Jesus asked us to be since the day Emperor Constantine declared that the Roman Empire was Christian. The Christian church is not meant to conquer the world. Jesus doesn’t need us to fight his battles for him. He doesn’t need us to transform American culture into Christian culture. He needs us to love his enemies as much as he does. Then, we will be transformed by our own sharing of the message of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us. As Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Let us be what God created us to be—a community of faith that lives an alternative lifestyle of love where others would hate; of blessing where others would curse; of forgiveness where others would litigate; of peace where others would choose violence; of generosity where other would grasp; of calm where others bring chaos; of reconciliation where others would divide; of faith where others would demand certainty; of trust where others would doubt; of hope where others would despair; of simplicity where others would build bigger barns. If we can turn our backs on the lifestyle the world encourages us to live, and live instead with Christ’s love in our hearts, then maybe—just maybe—the world will see our light, taste our salt, and glorify God.