Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48 (NRSV)
Be perfect, as God is perfect. So, are you a perfectionist, doing everything perfectly all the time? Do you keep the rules perfectly? Is that what Jesus means?
Perfectionism can affect the culture within a workplace, a family, a church family, an organization, or even within one’s own soul. Perfectionism can lead to a culture of excellence, with high standards coming from high expectations. However, perfectionism can also lead to a culture of judgement, a culture of fear, a culture of exclusion. We can be hard on others. We might be hardest on ourselves.
Is that what Jesus is calling us to? To be perfectionists? Let us look again at the words of Jesus in the context in which they are spoken.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)
In the immediate context, Jesus is telling us to be perfect in love. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it actually say “love your neighbour and hate your enemy,” (verse 43) but some Jewish groups were indeed saying that. In contrast, Jesus tells us to love our enemies (verse 44), and in so doing we will demonstrate a family resemblance to God (verse 45). After all, God provides graciously for all people without distinction (verse 45). The original hearers could reflect on the fact that Roman, or “enemy,” farmers would receive the same amount of sun and rain as the Jewish farmer. Since God loves the enemy, we all should. In the immediate context, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not so much “follow all the rules perfectly, keeping a perfect spirituality, while being a perfect person,” as “love like God does.” To quote the Common English Bible translation:
Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Matthew 5:48 (CEB)
In the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is leading us to become the kind of people who reflect the goodness of God, in love, and in everything else. We looked last week at how the scribes and the Pharisees were meticulous in studying and keeping the rules, yet were not the kind of people God was calling them to be. Jesus said that we must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees (5:20). In pointing to a better kind of righteousness, Jesus was pointing out that those who were merely focused on the rules were no different from anyone else, no matter how perfectly they kept them:
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:47-48 (NRSV)
As we pointed out last week, it is not about the rules, it is about you and me, the kind of people we are becoming in Christ, the kind of people who show a family resemblance with God in love, and in everything else.
In the even larger context of the whole Bible, Jesus is leading us toward a goal that God has brought within reach. God has a goal for us. What is that goal?
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. Romans 8:29 (NRSV emphasis added)
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. Colossians 1:21-22 (NRSV emphasis added)
Being just like Jesus, made holy, blameless, and irreproachable before God; these are lofty goals which we could never attain on our own. God makes it possible.
In speaking of the goal of perfection, there are two big theological words that are worth learning: justification & sanctification. To explain them, let me use an illustration. Suppose your driving instructor is the devil himself. You learn terrible driving habits, and indeed you rack up so many speeding and dangerous driving tickets, you cannot afford to pay them. You are to have your day in court, the evidence is overwhelming, you expect to be in jail for the rest of your life. Judgement day comes. The judge sets the fine, and indeed you cannot pay it. You are headed to jail for sure. The judge gets off his judgement seat, comes down to your level, gets out his chequebook and pays the fine on your behalf. That is justification. You are free to drive. There may be an accuser in the gallery shouting about how guilty you are, how strong the evidence is, and why you deserve to be in jail. However, while you could never justify why you belong on the roads, the judge who just paid your fine can. So what is sanctification? You get back into your car to drive off, and there sitting beside you in the passenger seat is your new driving instructor, the Holy Spirit. You begin driving, you become a better driver. You are not instantly a good driver, but you are improving with every mile. That is sanctification.
Bible scholar Michael Wilkins talks of a “restful dissatisfaction.” We rest in the fact of God’s love and what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ to enable us to reach the goal of perfection. Yet, we are dissatisfied if we do not experience movement towards that goal in the here and now. We are not concerned with how our lingering imperfections might disqualify us from belonging to God as His children. We are concerned with how our lingering imperfections can have a negative impact on our children, or anyone in relationships with us.
Are you perfect? If that is a question on an entrance exam for eternal life, then the answer can be yes; God offers to make you perfect in Jesus Christ. If that is a question we ask the people in our lives based on their experience of us, then no, we can likely make some improvements.
Are you a perfectionist? If you are the kind of person who loves like God loves, then you will not be. You will walk with imperfect people along a journey, putting up with their imperfections along the way. You may even learn to put up with your own imperfections. If you are a perfectionist, you may be hard on other people. You may be hardest on yourself. Perfectionism is not a part of love. God walks alongside us, not as a perfectionist judging our imperfections, ready to ditch us when we stumble, but as a Heavenly Father Who helps us walk better on our way to a wonderful goal.
(For a limited time, the full sermon can be heard at https://podpoint.com/calvary-baptist-church-cobourg-podcast)