We had a spirited discussion this past Wednesday at our Bible Study. Like I have done many times, I welcomed those present to discuss with me how we ought to interpret Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:48 (Be therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
You see, adding words like “strive” or “do your best” don’t cut it. They don’t cut it simply because those words aren’t there.
But everyone knows, they always tell me, no one is or can be perfect. I challenge this assumption, and someone in the room automatically assumes I am thus declaring myself perfect. I am not; it’s just that I can’t imagine Jesus telling us to do something that we can’t do.
So, the morning following this great, lively discussion, I heard someone telling a friend about it. “Steve actually believes we can be perfect,” he said, half chuckling, half still in shock. The friend shared the humorous disbelief that I would make such an assertion.
I suppose they had a nice little chuckle. I can’t help but wonder what has happened to the church that laughs at the idea of taking Jesus at his word.
One of my pet peeves about people’s interpretation of that verse (including many preachers) is when people say something to this affect: “The word ‘perfect’ really means mature, so Jesus isn’t saying that we can be perfect but that we need to mature and grow.”
While I believe the lexical range is important to take into account, this is as clear an example as I can think of that exposes the significance of context and relationship of words and concepts with others in the immediate passage. Jesus isn’t merely saying, “be perfect,” as if we can go off and define what ‘perfect’ is or isn’t. He’s comparing us with the Father–“be perfect AS your heavenly Father is perfect,” and that comes at the conclusion of a paragraph that speaks of God’s love and concern for all humankind regardless of who ‘deserves’ it. It’s this business of comparing how we ought to be with who God actually is that we ought to take away. Instead, we latch on to the word ‘perfect’ so that we can misdefine it (contrary to the context) and dismiss considering it seriously.