“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It’s tough to imagine a more unsettling teaching for Americans to hear on Independence Day than this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Resisting evil doers, turning the other cheek and praying for those who persecute us are not things we seem to do very well. And then there’s the little matter of being perfect.
How many times have you heard these maxims? “Never settle for second best.” “Don’t accept no for an answer.” “Never give up.” “Get it right the first time.”
Americans tend to obey these rules as though they were self-evident commandments. But while it is true that following them can lead to personal success, slavish observance of them can also promote perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the desire to be without defect in everything we do, and it can cause heartbreak for us and those we love. It can cause a person to focus on his job to the detriment of his family life. It can cause a person to procrastinate for fear of not doing a project flawlessly from the start. It can influence a young woman’s view of her body so that she starves herself to have the “perfect” figure.
But the problem with perfectionism is clear: it is unattainable. No person can be perfect at all times and in every area of her life.
The Bible itself records this in one of the overarching themes of scripture: human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes in judgment. We are prone to self-preservation and selfishness. We are capable of committing evil. In short, however much we strive to live God-centered lives, we are sinners and will always battle the temptations that keep us away from perfection.
Given these realities, Jesus’ imperative to be perfect as God is perfect sounds a bit preposterous.
This verse closes the first section of the Sermon on the Mount and follows a set of teachings that should, if we really pay attention to them, cause us deep discomfort. We know that we shouldn’t commit murder, but Jesus says that we shouldn’t even be angry with our sisters and brothers or insult them. We know that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but Jesus says that we must control lascivious thoughts because the thoughts are as sinful as the actions. He tells us that we must give to everyone and anyone who asks for money or material goods, even if we don’t think they will use them wisely. And he claims that loving only those who love us isn’t enough. We must also love our enemies. Not simply avoid harming them or just tolerate them, but love them. Then Jesus closes with that strange, daunting command, be perfect just as God is perfect.
Jesus knew about human sinfulness and the darkness of the human heart. So how could he expect us to do the impossible? Was he making a rhetorical flourish to highlight the seriousness of his ethical teachings? Or was it hyperbole, a verbal exclamation point closing his interpretation of Torah?
When we look at different biblical translations of the term “be perfect,” we see that Jesus was not being dramatic or asking for the impossible. His understanding of perfection was not exactly the same as ours. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” The New English Bible says, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” And Eugene Peterson’s popular translation, “The Message,” says, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Peterson translates teleioi – the Greek word often rendered as “perfect” – as “grow up.” In doing so, he highlights a definition of perfection that means to reach maturity, to become complete. In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying that perfection is a state of eternal flawlessness that can be magically wished into being. It is a process, one in which we make a practice of acting in ways that reflect God’s nature as we grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling.
Being generous as God is generous, being gracious as God is gracious, loving others as God loves us are surely some of the most difficult skills to learn. But as a child learns by imitating others, we too can help ourselves reach maturity by looking at the spiritual grown-ups around us.
In 2005 a Palestinian family demonstrated God’s generosity, graciousness and love with a beauty that surely bordered on perfection. The family’s 12-year old son, Ahmad Khateep, died after being shot in the head and chest by Israeli soldiers. Ahmed’s father made the decision to donate his son’s organs to children in an Israeli hospital and declared, “We want to send a message of peace to Israeli society, to the Defense Ministry and the Parliament.” Mustafa Makhamid, Ahmad’s uncle, told reporters that “Ahmed was a wonderful and smart little kid who just wanted to play. We want to donate his organs to all the children of Israel whom we consider our children. Enough blood spilling. We hope that we will start a new process that will exceed all others and end the spilling of blood.” With that decision three Israeli girls were given the gift of new life because they received the organs of a Palestinian child. With that decision the Khateep family loved their “enemies” and showed the entire world what it means to have God-like generosity and graciousness. In their practice of God’s qualities, they acted like true grown-ups.
It’s not difficult to imagine that some of their ancestors may have sat on a mountainside in Galilee more than 2,000 years ago and decided to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to enter the process of becoming perfect as God is perfect. If so, they had to have made many mistakes while living out his teachings because they were flawed people, just like us. But they kept handing them down, maintaining their practice so that the seeds of God’s loving kindness were planted in their spiritual DNA. And those seeds bore fruit generations later in the lives of people who are supposed to be at terrible odds with one another.
What hope is found in this story! As Americans, we can see that it is possible to act in ways that go against the norm of what our culture tells us. It is possible to be faithful to God’s teachings rather than fall prey to the fear and hatred that seem to dominate our political conversations.
As followers of Jesus, we can see that we are all invited into the process of growing up and into God’s kingdom of loving kindness. Even in the face of our sinful natures, we can choose to act with love, not only toward those who love us, but also toward those we might be inclined to despise. With God’s help and the example of mature sisters and brothers, we are able to act out Jesus’ teachings in our lives for the benefit of all God’s creation.
There is another maxim you may have heard: “Practice makes perfect.” Maybe we should rephrase that to say, practice may not make us flawless, but it can make us loving grown-ups in the Kingdom of God.