by Wye Huxford
Matthew 5:48 is a part of the Sermon on the Mount and that in itself should be a bit of a warning that it is one of the biblical texts that can make you uncomfortable. This is especially true if our relationship to Jesus is more casual than intentional.
But here is what it says: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (NRSV). This is one of those places where we might be tempted to stop reading and say, "Really, Jesus?" The word typically translated "perfect" ultimately seems to reflect the idea of having fully attained what something was designed to be. As creatures made in God's image, such perfection would be that moment when we fully live out God's intentional purposes for humans when He made us in the first place.
This futuristic command is the summary statement for a series of comments from Jesus on such topics as murder, adultery, divorce, false swearing, revenge, and loving your neighbor and hating your enemy. Jesus seems to believe that Israel has, over the years of having been entrusted with the Law, missed the point of much of what the Law had to say.
When we start reading Scripture as God intended it to be read (or specifically in the case of this particular text, the Law) then the idea that our character and God's character will cross paths seems a reasonable thing for Jesus to command. The whole Sermon on the Mount may best be understood as a description of what Israel would have looked like had Israel read the Law as God intended. Thus, instead of thinking as long as we didn't murder someone, we were okay with God, or as long as we didn't actually commit adultery we were okay with God, we would know that focusing on behavior rather than character is always a fatal mistake. Hence Jesus' command: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
This idea has led me to think that when I read Scripture, study Scripture, argue with Scripture, nothing could be more important than asking two fundamental questions in response to the mandate, "Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect":(a) What does this text teach me about God's character? and, (b) How can I learn to emulate that aspect of God's character in my life?
When I start reading Scripture this way, it suddenly speaks to my life in ways I didn't realize it could - or perhaps in some cases, didn't believe it did. I no longer have to ask, "Where's that verse that tells me how Christians should react to immigration issues?" I can simply reflect upon, "How does God react to the immigration issue?" It isn't a matter of finding a verse about health care for everyone, but treating others as God does. In other words, it simply is a matter of "being as complete in fulfilling the purpose for which we were made as God is complete."
I know that's a tall order. But I didn't give it - Jesus did. Paul evidently saw it as important. In Romans 15:7 he says, "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." Wrestling with the idea of God's character as the model for our own may occasionally leave us with a limp - it seems to have done that for Jacob (Genesis 32:22ff), why not us? But how greater the blessing of a limp because we have struggled to be like God, than the perfect gait of one who never thought that life really is about character before it is about behavior.