As the first part of His Sermon on the Mount comes to a close, Jesus summarizes His teaching up to that point: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 NRSV).
If you’re anything like me, this command tempts you to throw up your hands in defeat. The teachings about anger, marriage, and love for enemies were all difficult enough, but now we are supposed to be perfect? We want to protest—it hardly seems fair that Jesus would insist upon so much. I know myself well enough to say that on this side of heaven, perfection is not something I expect to attain. So how can that be the standard?
Jesus is indeed calling us to live free of sin, and to be filled with love for others. That is the goal. As God commanded the people of Israel, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). Our standard of holiness and perfection is not the neighbor down the street, or a pious religious leader we know of, but the very holiness of God the Father.
Of course Jesus also knows we struggle with sin and live in a broken world, and that such a standard is not one we will always live up to—but that doesn’t change the goal. We are called to conform more and more to the way of Christ, to the life He calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the gospels. And while doing so may seem beyond our reach, our propensity to fail no more invalidates God’s standard than my children’s tendency to disobey invalidates the rules my wife and I set for them. That the standards will be broken is no strike against the standards themselves.
When we read the word “perfect,” we might assume it means flawless, or sinless. But although God is certainly sinless, that’s not exactly what this word is getting at.
In our culture, the way we imagine perfection tends to be simply a matter of either lacking faults or being precisely arranged and invariable, like a complex chemical formula that will collapse if any part of the equation is changed. But in context, the Greek word translated here as “perfection” seems to suggest an idea more like “wholehearted obedience” or “spiritual maturity.”
In a parallel passage, Luke’s Gospel uses the word “merciful,” which suggests that both Matthew and Luke were translating into Greek an Aramaic word meaning “whole or complete.” Obedience, maturity, and being whole and complete—these are words that suggest life, not lifelessness. They point to experience and growth in spite of, or even because of, the messiness of living.
So what, then, should we make of these difficult words, “be perfect”?
Far from being a reason to despair, far from signaling that we ought to just give up in the face of such an unattainable standard, these are words of hope. We have been called to imitate the character of our Father. As children of God, we are taught to grow and mature and become increasingly complete in our obedience.
Yes, we may have days where perfection seems ridiculously far off. We will continue to wrestle with sin and the effects of living in a broken world, but that is not the end of the story. Jesus paid the price for each and every one of those sins, and He is now calling us to embrace that forgiveness and to live as the new creations we are being made into. In other words, to be perfect.