“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
As chapter five of Matthew comes to a close it provides a moment to reflect on Jesus’s sermon to this point. The sermon on the mount, which begins in chapter 5, won’t actually end for two more chapters. However, verse 48 does provide a conclusion to a section that began in 5:20 when Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and pharisees if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It was a shocking statement since the Pharisees were considered at the time some of the most righteous people around. They were living faith out in radical ways already. Was it even possible to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus then elaborates on what this righteousness must look like. Don’t just avoid murder, don’t get angry. Don’t just avoid adultery, don’t even lust. Honor your marriage commitments. Tell the truth. Don’t resist evil people. Love your enemies. The list continues to shock us and make us wonder if this is even possible. Finally, Jesus makes the definitive statement; God is seeking perfection.
This seems like a far cry from the original moments of the sermon where Jesus emphasizes blessing. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Jesus begins the sermon by recognizing that life is difficult, and we will experience pain in life. He goes out of his way to offer hope and acceptance to those who face difficulties in life. Jesus doesn’t push to the side those that are struggling. Instead, Jesus embraces them and offers a fresh start, a new hope. This is the picture of Jesus we enjoy because he is kind and compassionate.
However, by verse 48, Jesus seems to be on the other end of the spectrum. Even Gentiles can be nice to Gentiles. The charge for Christians is not just to be good, or slightly better than most. The charge is to be more righteous than the most righteous people you know. To be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.
This is the point in the sermon, if we haven’t done so already, that we walk away because it’s just too hard. It’s too hard to be perfect. Jesus can’t be serious. He must be living in an ideal world. It’s not practical to try to live this way, especially when most of the world will not. So we walk away.
Or we explain it away. It’s amazing the steps we will go to in order to protect ourselves from the radical claims of Jesus. Like a house of cards, we are looking for that one statement that is not quite possible, and once we pull it out the whole house falls. So we emphasize that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole and didn’t really mean all of the things he said. Or we argue that Jesus was just sharing the ideal while understanding we would never reach it. In reality, Jesus was expecting us to rest on grace. His point was really, just do the best you can, I’ll cover the rest. Or finally, we just water down the message. Don’t get angry too much. Don’t lust too much. Don’t throw the first punch, but be ready to finish the fight. We protect ourselves from Jesus because the claims are hard, and in so doing, we fail to live as disciples.
But what if Jesus was serious? What if he really meant perfection? What if being a nice person isn’t quite good enough, or being technically pure isn’t quite good enough? What if Jesus really meant what he said, and instead of watering down the message to something that seems more culturally appropriate we started encouraging each other to live out the demands of Jesus? What if instead of shielding ourselves from the teachings of Jesus we embraced them? What would discipleship look like?
In the sermon on the mount Jesus is offering a snapshot of what it looks like to live as a member of the Kingdom of Heaven; living under the reign and rule of God. In presenting this snapshot, Jesus offers a choice. We can embrace the teachings of Jesus and live in the world imagined in scripture or we can settle for some watered down form of Christianity. God’s kingdom reality is being contrasted with the reality of our own lives and we are left with a choice, which reality will we live into?
Father, save us from ourselves when we would rather water down the message of discipleship than face the realities of conforming our lives to the image of your Son. Father, save us from ourselves when we try to protect ourselves from the radical teachings of Jesus.
Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.