“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Jesus (Matt 5:48)
That may be the scariest verse in the whole Bible. Love your enemies – tough but willing to try. Forgive others – hard but doable. Be perfect – yeah, that train left the station a long time ago!
As the saying goes, “to err is human”, but some of us struggle with the idea of being less than perfect. My wife is a perfectionist and that comes in handy – she is the world’s best proof-reader, and I wouldn’t be publishing this blog without her keen eye. I also have some perfectionist in me, but at some point long ago, I developed the attitude that “good enough” would be acceptable. It still bugs me when I make a mistake, but I don’t lose sleep about everything being absolutely perfect.
In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey presents two very different ways to approach Jesus’ instruction. One is as “absolute ideals” and the other as “absolute grace”. On the one hand, Yancey describes Leo Tolstoy’s attempt (and failure) to live up to God’s perfection. On the other, Yancey documents Fyodor Dostoevsky’s acceptance that he would never live up to it, and that he doesn’t have to because of God’s grace.
You will notice as you read Matthew 5 that Jesus is upping the standards by which people are to live. As a final exclamation point, He instructs us to be perfect. As Jesus is in the middle of His most famous teaching lecture, and in an attempt to find the middle ground between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I look at this verse in the context of a modern-day school teacher.
When a teacher hands out a test, they don’t instruct the students to answer some of the questions correctly; they want the students to try answer all of them correctly. In other words, the teacher would instruct their pupils to answer the questions perfectly. When the tests are handed back in, no teacher is surprised when there are wrong answers on most, if not all, of the tests. While they would tell the students to be perfect, they would also expect that they would make some mistakes – either through carelessness or because they did not learn the subject well enough.
When Jesus instructs us to be perfect, He does so in the same way. He knows we are going to fall short because He knows we are not perfect. The beauty is, with that knowledge, He doesn’t lower the bar. He keeps it unattainable!
Having a teacher (boss, mentor, wife…) who pushes you is one of the best gifts you can recieve. They don’t let you settle for “good enough” – they make you better. Jesus looks at each one of us and pushes us to be the best we can be. We never achieve perfection in this life. But like a good teacher, He doesn’t flunk us when we fall short. In fact, He picks us up and says, “Keep trying. You can do it!”, and most importantly “I’m with you to help.”
It is important to note that this doesn’t soften the call to perfection. Like I said, the bar is still set impossibly high, but it isn’t set high to discourage or even condemn. It is set so that in every situation, we know the call is to make the right choice, do the right thing and do it all in love.
Like Tolstoy, we should strive to live a life that is pleasing to God, and like Dostoevsky, we should rest assured that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in the perfection of Jesus.