Pastoral Message – February 19, 2023
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Today’s Gospel passage is the conclusion of Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel, which is known as The Sermon on the Mount. This chapter contains some of the most direct, and hardest to follow, teachings of Jesus. In each section of this chapter, Jesus challenges His followers (and, of course, all of us) to reject sin and to become the beautiful, loving people that God originally created. It begins with the list of characteristics that Jesus considers “blessed” in the Beatitudes. Then Jesus urges us to be a powerful influence for good in the world as salt and light. Then He teaches that we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Today he warns us that the superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven and He concludes his teaching with the most frightening instruction of all: “Be perfect.”
Did you ever consider the implications if Jesus actually meant what he said? Could he really be serious? He is telling us to “be perfect” even though He knows that we are the farthest thing from perfect. He knows, without any doubt, that that none of us, even the most holy, most loving, most compassionate, most generous among us, could ever be perfect. Yet, that is what He says. By the way, He does not say, “Try to be as perfect as you can be.” He also does not say, “Even though you are likely to fail repeatedly, try anyway.” No, He lays down a daunting challenge: “Be perfect!” If you are someone who takes the Bible literally, you may be thinking that your plans for eternity in Heaven may have to be seriously adjusted.
Perfection, even for those who practice diligently and have extraordinary natural talents, is rarely, if ever, achieved. I recall watching Olympic figure skating with my wife. Even a performance that appeared to be flawless to the casual observer had tiny imperfections that prevented it from being a perfect “10.” The commentators, anticipating the demanding standards of the judges, would never call a performance “perfect.” The best they might offer was, “That was outstanding, nearly perfect.” However, what if perfection really is the standard for eternal life? Where does that leave all of us?
If Jesus says to be perfect, we can safely assume that He would not require us to do something that is impossible for us to achieve. On the other hand, mainstream Christianity has resisted the doctrine of perfectionism chiefly because the greatest saints in church history struggled with ongoing sin in their lives. Even Paul talked about his ongoing struggle with sin. Yet, we also hear that God always gives us enough grace to overcome sin. So even if sin is inevitable because of our weakness and because of the multitude of opportunities we have to sin, God’s grace gives us the power to resist sin each time that it arises in our lives.
The use of “perfect” here likely means “complete.” Therefore, the most likely interpretation of today’s Gospel is that Jesus is telling us that God is the standard against which everything else is measured and, in that sense, as “children of [our] heavenly Father” we must also love as God loves. Since God loves even those who reject or hurt Him, our love for people needs to grow and mature to include loving even our enemies. If we do not love our enemies we are not behaving as God’s children.
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect in the sense that we never sin. He knows that we will sin. As John writes, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.” No matter how hard we try, we sin constantly and are therefore far from perfect. We commit sins of commission – doing that which we shouldn’t, and sins of omission – not doing that which we should. We may sin by stealing or taking the Lord’s name in vain, or we may sin by failing to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
God sees and knows our shortcomings. That is why we daily need His grace. In spite of our failures, His infinite love is unconditional. God’s love for us, and consequently, our relationship with God is not based on our perfection, but on Christ’s. His perfect obedience is credited to us so when God looks at us, He sees us as perfect. If we could be perfect in our own strength, Christ’s death would have been unnecessary.
Will we ever perfectly love like our heavenly Father loves? Not in this life. Perfect love is a standard impossible for us to attain by our own efforts, but what is impossible for people is possible with God. We will get nowhere if we trust in our own abilities. Yet, loving like God loves is to be our goal and we are to pursue it wholeheartedly. The standard that we live by is our Heavenly Father’s, who loves perfectly. Jesus taught that we must demonstrate love to all people, no matter what faith, nationality, or personality. When we accept our imperfections, understand our inabilities, and receive God’s grace, we will be able to love all people in a way that imitates our heavenly Father. In that way we can “be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect.”