Some people have an allergic reaction to being graded.
Maybe they remember coming home from school with a report card of all A’s and one B — only to be berated for the B. Maybe they remember the coach (or the parent shouting from the stands) who made them feel like the biggest klutz on the planet and took all the fun out of competitive sports.
And maybe they remember the pastor who preached about the importance of grace, but presided over a congregation where people were graded on merit. Those who didn’t measure up felt like they didn’t belong, as if the real message beneath the sermon was, Shape up or leave.
And then we read this, from the lips of Jesus, partway through the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48, NRSV).
Really? No pressure. For those of us who already struggle with perfectionism, that doesn’t sound much like good news.
But of course, Jesus isn’t talking about perfectionism. He’s not talking about living under the oppressive gaze of a Father who scrutinizes our every move, who withholds his approval until we bring home that A+ report card.
He’s talking about our wanting to grow up to be just like the Father in whose love we are confident.
“You have heard that it was said…” Jesus says repeatedly in Matthew 5. He is expounding on his earlier claim that he has not come to set God’s Law aside, whatever his opponents might think. No, he has come to fulfill the Law, to show its true essence (Matt 5:17-18). Thus, he must correct his hearers’ skewed understanding of what it means to be righteous: “You have heard… But I say to you…”
That includes what the people have heard about love. They know they are commanded to love their neighbor. But they’ve taken this to justify a mentality in which you love your friends, love your family, love your fellow Jews — but hate your enemies, hate outsiders, hate those who make your life difficult (Matt 5:43).
No, says Jesus:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:44-48)
You are to love your enemies, not hate them. The very life and death of Jesus demonstrate this, and as the gospel of John insists, Jesus’ love for others was inseparable from his love for his Father.
There is deep irony in what Jesus says, if the people will hear it. What you’ve been taught draws a line between “us” and “them”: “We love us, and hate them.” But God loves “them” too. And besides, there’s nothing righteous about loving your friends and hating your enemies. Everybody does that: the Gentiles, and yes, even the tax gatherers you despise so much. Your Father is a loving Father — and if you want to show yourselves to truly be his children, you will show love to your enemies, just as he does.
“Therefore be perfect,” Jesus says. He doesn’t mean, “You must get a perfect score on your righteousness exam, or God won’t love you.” That kind of merit system is precisely what he has been arguing against. God is not the stern and demanding patriarch glaring at you over your less than perfect report card; he is a loving Father who wants you to grow up to be like him.
After all, that’s what the word translated as “perfect” means: to be complete, mature, grown up, whole.
Perfectionism is the pursuit of acceptance from a parent of whose love we can never be sure. Maybe if I can just get that A+, I will finally have my father’s approval…
Rather, the Christian life is built on the certainty that there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve God’s love — but we have it nonetheless, in all its freedom and fullness. Knowing that, being sure of that, wouldn’t we want to grow up to be just like him?
Because that would be perfect.