Raising The Bar
Matthew 5:43-48 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If loving our neighbor wasn’t a difficult enough challenge, Jesus expands the definition of neighbor here in what we call his “Sermon on the Mount” to include our enemies (vs.44), and murder to include every angry thought (vs.22) as well as adultery to include even our most private lustful thoughts (vs.28). And then the unrealistic expectations rise higher and higher up into a wounding crescendo, a painful stabbing point, where in vs.48 the bar has now been raised beyond any conceivable reach. At precisely this point Jesus divulges to his hearers the necessary standard of righteousness that God requires of all: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This text describes a standard of righteousness which God does require, per Jesus, but that is utterly absurdly impossible for anyone to be able to reach. The result is that every single thinking person who hears or reads those words should be stopped dead in our tracks. We know intuitively it is not even within our DNA to come close.
So if Jesus knows we can’t do it, why does he command it?
To answer that question, let’s be reminded of the socio-historical and religious context of first century Palestine. The Israelites, the people of God, had yet again missed grace and embraced works; the human nature defaulting to circumvent the grace of God by attempting to be good in our own strength and efforts. For the Pharisees of the day, this was done by observing the commandments (Ex.20, Dt.5), the Old Testament “Law” in general, plus the midrash; those many additional human religious rules, rites, and traditions layered on top of it all. But it didn’t work. Those hearers were obviously far from the Kingdom of God when Jesus came.
So how can imperfect human beings achieve this perfection that God requires?
The Greek teleios, translated “perfect” in vs.48, is defined as perfect, perfection, and also as complete or finished. It appears seventeen times in the New Testament and is the same word Jesus uses when admonishing the rich young ruler in Mt 19:21, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”. Those were very hard words to hear, even when spoken with compassion, for that earnest young man walked away downcast.
So this all seems so impossibly hopeless, and Jesus really does leave us hanging on verse 48 waiting for a resolution that doesn’t immediately come as it’s not spoken right afterwards. Instead we’re stuck in a conundrum; yearning for a perfection and completeness exceeding that of the Pharisees, but unable to muster it on our own.
But for those who rely on Christ, there is hope and here’s the key: While we do need to be perfect, perfected, holy and righteous, it won’t come from anything inside us at all. None of our attempts or efforts will even make a dent. Instead, what is given to us by the finished work of Christ on the cross is an external righteousness which comes from outside of ourselves; it is HIS righteousness, applied to us on our behalf.
Theologians speak of a double imputation that occurred on the cross and what they mean is simply this: When Jesus took our sin upon himself, he simultaneously applied his perfect righteousness onto us. It’s a big switch and this is exactly how we become perfect in God’s eyes; not by anything we do or don’t do, but by what Jesus did on our behalf. Very simple and yet extremely profound.
Jesus himself IS our perfection and our completeness as he lives his eternal life in and through us by his Holy Spirit. So when he calls us to “be perfect” (vs.48), in essence he is calling us to rest completely in Him. And that is good news.