Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5: 48 – NAS)
So Jesus comes to a “pause moment” in the Sermon on the Mount, where the Gospel editors have chosen to break the text into a new chapter, letting this declaration stand as a wrap-up to what has gone before. And it is quite the capper, isn’t it? “Be perfect, just like God.”
Come on, it’s easy!
The problem for us is that we have such vague ideas as to what is meant by “perfect” when it comes to our own actions. We know that God is perfect in all things, and we are quite willing to concede that Jesus is so also. But how are we to be perfect, when we know – “perfectly well” – that we are not. We know that we make mistakes, we know that we often intentionally do things to poke and jab (if not outright hurt) others because of hurts we have received.
We have a tendency to regard “perfection” as being without sin in any of our thoughts or deeds. And certainly, what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon is intended to guide us toward that objective. But Jesus is talking about the here and now, not some future goal. “Be perfect now.”
When I look up the definition of “perfect” in the dictionary, I find something broader than “entirely without sin.”
Perfect: being entirely without fault or defect, flawless; satisfying all requirements; corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept; faithfully reproducing the original; legally valid; expert, proficient; total, pure; absolute, unequivocal; mature; certain, sure; contented, satisfied.
My Ryrie Study Bible suggests that here “perfect” is meant as “not without sin, but mature and complete in the likeness of God.”
When we look at these definitions we see a lot of possibilities. “Mature.” Okay, that’s not so difficult to strive for. I can easily choose not to react like a four-year-old or even a twelve-year-old. I can be “adult” about things. How about “contented and satisfied”? Can we be content in our actions, that we have done our best (whether it was completely successful or not)? Of course, that presumes that we have actually attempted to do everything Jesus has told us up to this point. But even that is within our reach.
So “perfect” is not so very far away from us, if we look at each action individually. Certainly, the object is to be perfect “like our Father” in all things at all times. But for now, we can strive to be perfect in this thing at this time. It does take practice.
I think this is where we let ourselves off the hook, or alternatively delude ourselves that we have indeed done everything possible.
We let ourselves off the hook by wrestling with the concept of achieving total perfection all at once and finding it impossible to do – at least all at once. We say to ourselves, “It can’t be done. I can’t be totally perfect, I’m only human! But God loves me anyway, so that’s enough, isn’t it?” When we get into this mindset, we stop trying to be perfect in individual actions and choices. If we get into a dispute with a fellow believer, and we feel that we are in the right, we stop. Well, after all, there’s Jesus’ recommendation to “let your no be no.” That’s enough, isn’t it? (We just overlook everything that was said about being merciful, peacemakers, and, oh yeah, not coming to the altar when we know a brother has something against us that we have not resolved.)
But it is also easy for us to stop really following through on what Jesus has taught us because we get frustrated, or conflicted, or uncertain about what to do next. “We did everything we could.” And so we stop. We know that the problem or the difficult situation remains, and yet because we’ve reached a seeming impasse, we tell ourselves that God can’t expect more from us. Because, after all, “we’re only human.”
“Only human.” But Jesus has already told us that we can be so very much more, that God wants us to be so much more: inheritors (that is rulers) of the earth, adopted as Sons and Daughters of God, given the authority of heaven to command. Is that “only human”? I think we ought to expect that a little more effort than being “merely human” is required.
I don’t think Jesus expects us to wake up one morning and know that we have mastered each of these skills and points. That sort of mastery may come after a lifetime of following Him. But I do think He expects us to wake up each morning and with this problem in front of us try to perfectly follow His guidelines for dealing with it. If we lapse in another area, He understands. But we’re not excused from trying.
Nobody really wants to admit that they’re not perfect. “I’m only human” is our preferred way of expressing that. But Jesus sees what we could be, and He’s waiting for us to become that.