Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Jesus’ words are often challenging. Certainly in his teaching Jesus spoke words of comfort, words of inspiration and words of grace. But he also spoke words of challenge.
Some of Jesus’ words that I find most challenging are these from Matthew’s gospel. Spoken in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, they come just after Jesus’ words about loving your enemies, which is challenging enough. But then Jesus concludes that section of the sermon by saying “be perfect”.
It’s hard enough to hear Jesus’ teaching on hatred, revenge, lust and integrity that have come before. But ‘be perfect’? Come on Jesus, that’s setting the bar a bit too high isn’t it? In fact, it’s setting the bar so high that nobody will be able to reach it at all!
I struggle with this command of Jesus to ‘be perfect’. I am somewhat of a perfectionist, which means I set high standards of myself and beat myself up when I fail to meet them (I have been getting some help about this, I promise!) But that’s the problem about being a perfectionist: you can never achieve perfection. Even if you are very skilled and talented, and spend inordinate amounts of time on something, perfection will still be out of your reach.
Then comes Jesus and tells us to ‘be perfect’. That plays right into my perfectionist tendencies, but the perfectionist in me also knows I can’t be perfect, however hard I try. So is Jesus assigning us to a life of frustration, striving for perfection but never attaining it?
I think we get a better understanding of what Jesus means by looking at the whole of the verse. Jesus doesn’t just command ‘be perfect’ but says instead, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
That might seem to be even more frustrating! The level of perfection that Jesus asks us to aim for is the perfection of God himself. How is that possible? How on earth can I ever hope to achieve that level of perfection?
Put simply, we can’t. We can never, through our own efforts, be perfect as God is perfect. In case we were tempted to strive for perfection, Jesus puts perfection so far out of our reach that we can never hope to attain it through human effort.
And that’s the point. Jesus commands ‘be perfect’ and it is a command. But it is not a command we can obey through work and effort. Perfection is only possible when it comes from God to us, not from us striving to be like God.
When Jesus says ‘be perfect’ he expects us to respond in dependance not determination. He expects us to respond by seeking him, not by striving. He expects us to find perfection in him, and not in ourselves.
Being perfect is only possible when the perfection of the Father flows to us through Jesus the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the only way to obey Jesus’ command. ‘Be perfect’ says Jesus, and invites us to come running to him to know his perfection flowing into us, which is the only way to be perfect.