“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Seriously, Jesus? Have you even met some of us? Have you seen the depths of our jealousies, the breadth of our greed? Have you noticed how insatiable our egos are? How deeply insecure we all are?
You cannot mean what you seem to mean.
What then do we do with this seemingly impossible call? For many of us, this is one of those passages in the Bible we seek to explain away. Jesus can’t possibly mean what he says here. We reckon that he must be calling us merely to aspire to perfection. Or we conclude that in calling us to perfection, we realize how very far we are from it and thus lean on God’s grace. But certainly, absolutely, without a doubt, Jesus cannot be calling us to be perfect like God is perfect.
Some context might be helpful. These teachings are part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 -7) and contain within them what scholars call “antitheses.” In each antithesis, Jesus recounts, “You have heard it said …” and then proclaims a different facet of this ancient teaching. Too often, interpreters see Jesus here subverting Jewish traditions and laws, rejecting ancient teachings for the sake of newer ones.
This is simply incorrect. Instead, Jesus embraces these ancient, God-breathed teachings and intensifies their call to love God and neighbor. He is not negating these teachings but calling all their adherents to embody their demands in concrete and radical, practical and transformative ways. In short, Jesus is bringing these laws to life in his time and place.
How then might this impossible call to “be perfect” come to life among us today?
Matthew 5:38-48 contains a litany of seemingly impossible attitudes and behaviors.
After all, the justice we tend to seek is retributive. The Hebrew Scriptures sought to place a cap on the scope of such retribution by making punishments proportional to the crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But what if we were to turn the other cheek and invite a second slap from our enemies? What if we were to give without questions to all those who ask? What then?
The love we tend to share is particular, exclusive. We love those who are our neighbors. That is, we love those people who look, think, and act like us. Those other people are our enemies, and our loathing — even if disguised by politeness and kept secret — is uncontrollable. But what if were to love the stranger, pray for those who wish to do us harm?
What do we make of such seemingly impossible calls to refuse the regulations that so often rule over us? What do we make of the curtailing of revenge, the shift among from absolute self-interest, the rejection of a tribalism we still practice today. What do we do with Jesus’ teachings?
As we ponder how we might answer these questions, we might just discover what being perfect looks like. It is not superiority. It is not flawlessness. It is not moral absolutism that cares little for those around you. Instead, perfection is found in love. Perfection is found in relationship with those others who seek to harm us or seek our help.
But, of course, this can all get complicated very quickly.
It is one thing to imagine the challenge of loving your enemy, of daring him to strike you with another blow in the abstract. It is quite another to face the challenge ourselves. These calls to absolute love are easier to bear from the perspective of the powerful, the well-off, those of us insulated from most of the dangers this world can pose. It is much more difficult to imagine these calls to service and love of the enemy from the perspective of the downtrodden.
For instance, in the lead up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we have rightly paid a great deal of attention to the plight of LGBT people living in Russia. Laws recently instituted there are a threat to those who identify their sexuality outside of the legal norm. Moreover, the climate created by such laws easily creates a noxious mix of intolerance and violence. Sadly, believers have been too ready to speak about our LGBT neighbors with certainty rather than love.
What would Jesus say to a man who happens to be gay living in Russia today? When he is assaulted by a gang intent on displaying their violence against homosexuals on YouTube, should he refuse to fight back? Should he turn the other cheek?
What would Jesus say to a woman who happens to be lesbian and is berated by her neighbors? Would Jesus call her to pray for her enemies, hope for their hearts to be softened to her humanity?
This passage is not an exhortation to self-flagellation or even self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. Jesus would not call these individuals to a quiet resignation that assumes nothing will change, justice will never prevail.
Instead, Jesus rejects the ways we tend to flex our power. Seizing upon the real or perceived weakness of others, violence and oppression are both easy and profitable. Too often, neglecting the needy does not induce any sense of worry in our hearts, for we assume that their lowly position and our privileged positions are a result, not of happenstance and privilege, but of will or work or uprightness. Jesus here calls us to buck these too common ways of being. Jesus calls us to resist the powerful not by wielding their weapons against them but by rejecting the very premises of the power they wield.
That is, Jesus does not call us to resignation but radical love.
Perhaps then Jesus knows us all too well. He understands how narrow our love can be, how expansive a shape our hatred can take. Jesus sees this in us but also notices something else. He sees how God’s love inhabits and transforms us. He sees how broken relationships are made whole as the Spirit moves among us. He sees that justice can reign whenever we love our neighbors, no matter who they are.
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
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