“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect”

In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus teaches us how to be perfect.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That’s some tall order, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” When I first read it, I thought it meant to be as perfect as the heavenly Father. But the placement of the comma is important. Jesus is saying act as our heavenly Father would act. Act out of love.

Today as in Jesus’ time, this is a pretty controversial call to be good to our enemies and persecutors. Love them and pray for them, Jesus says. In today’s day of hyper partisanship and deep cultural divide, everyone seems to be the enemy. If you don’t agree with me, you should be condemned in the strongest terms. It’s my posse versus your posse. You’re the sinner, not me. And if you dare cross me, I not only will strike back but I will make your life a living hell. But Jesus says, the Father makes His sun rise on the bad and the good, the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. An eye for an eye? Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said you were better to pluck out your own eye, cut off your right hand, if it offends.

No, Jesus calls on us to be “children of your heavenly Father.” Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. In terms of the Beatitudes, be a peacemaker. Offer no resistance to the one who is evil. If he strikes you, don’t strike back; give him the opportunity to strike you again. That’s the hardest one to obey.

Then Jesus tells us how to treat one another, good or evil. If someone goes to court over your tunic, throw in your cloak. If someone presses you into service for a mile, give him two. Never turn down someone who asks of you; never refuse anyone who asks to borrow.

If you love only those who love you… if you greet your brothers only… don’t unbelievers and sinners do that, too? What marks us as followers of Christ is our devotion to loving our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus commands us. And sometimes our neighbors are our enemies and persecutors. Be perfect in love as God is perfect in love. If you strive for perfection, strive in this.

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