God, the perfectionist?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
— Matt 5:48 (NRSV, NIV)

I’ve heard it again and again, in different forms: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  In some ways, it’s hard to argue with either part of that statement, at least on the surface.

But I’m concerned with the subtext I sometimes hear beneath the surface.

Bumper sticker theology, of course, isn’t designed to convey much nuance.  The message, presumably, is that the Christian faith isn’t about being religious superstars (albeit with skeletons rattling in the closet!), but about receiving the gracious forgiveness of God.  No problem there.

Yet from the way I sometimes hear Christians talk about “perfection,” I’m not so sure that the “being religious” part has really changed all that much.  It’s as if the gospel only added a new piece of information to the old way of thinking, instead of radically transforming it: God still wants us to be really, really religious — but he forgives us when we mess up.

It reminds me of an Internet meme that was in circulation a couple of years ago, when the Occupy movement began protesting income inequality in the U.S. under the slogan “We are the 99%.”  The meme pictured a perfectionistic parent chiding an off-camera young Occupier: “You’re the 99 percent?  Why aren’t you 100 percent?”

So is God like that parent, only a little more patient?  What does Jesus mean in the Sermon on the Mount when he declares that those who follow him are to be perfect?

We tend to read the word “perfect” as meaning “flawless,” as if Jesus meant that Christians must achieve sinless perfection.  But there’s another way, a more gospel-centered way, to understand what Jesus said.

Consider these words from earlier in the sermon:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17, 20, NRSV).

Did Jesus mean that he would “fulfill” the law by keeping every single commandment?  Was he saying, “The scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites because they preach the law but don’t do a very good job of keeping it — if you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to do better”?  Would he have been satisfied if the Pharisees suddenly became “perfect” by legal standards?

Or: was he saying that the Pharisees had completely missed the point of the law and what God desires of his people?  And that he would show the way?

The prophet Micah wrote that not even the most spectacular of religious sacrifices would satisfy what God really wanted: a people of justice, kindness, and humility (Mic 6:6-8).  The apostle Paul wrote that Christians fulfill the law by loving their neighbors (Rom 13:8-10), following the teaching of Jesus himself, who declared that a wholehearted love of God and neighbor were the greatest of all the commandments (Mark 12:29-31).

When Jesus taught his disciples “Be perfect,” he did so in the context of a gospel reinterpretation of neighbor love.  Somehow, the commandment had been twisted in a self-serving way; God’s people were taught that loving one’s neighbor permitted or perhaps even required a matching hatred for one’s enemy (Matt 5:43).  No, Jesus said: if you are to be my follower, you must love and pray for your enemies; that’s what will show that you are truly children of your heavenly Father (vss. 44-45).

“Perfect”: in context, the word means not flawlessness, but completion, maturity, the attainment of a proper goal.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” doesn’t mean “God doesn’t sin so neither should you”; it means that God our Father wants us to be like him in a complete and mature love that embraces our enemies.

“Christians aren’t perfect.”  Surely that’s not news to anyone, if by “perfect” we mean morally flawless.  But sometimes it sounds like a plea for tolerance: “Hey, don’t call me a hypocrite — I never said I was perfect.”

The question is: are we still stuck in the same cycle of religious righteousness (with grace and forgiveness thrown in as a bonus!), or have we been captivated by the vision that God the Father wants children who will show what love really means?