“Be Perfect: Is Jesus Demanding the Impossible?”

by J. Steven Covington (This Rock, Sept. 1999)

J. Steven Covington, a contributor to This Rock from Neillsville, Wisc., writes on Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 5:48 to his followers to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Covington notes, “Poised at the center of the Sermon on the Mount, this Gospel exhortation is a critical teaching moment in the life of Jesus and a critical moment of revelation for all his disciples. It is the moment where Jesus sums up his teaching by issuing a clarion call for us to transform ourselves into an image of God's own holiness, that we may transform the entire world into the kingdom of God.”

Covington points out that from the point of view of religious Jews, the call for Jesus’ followers to transform ourselves into something that resembles God could seem blasphemous, but Jesus instead offers us the “opportunity to become fully human by imitating the loving qualities of God.”

Only St. Matthew uses the word “perfect” in the New Testament, and his only other use of it is in Jesus’ advice to the rich young man “that to ‘be perfect,’ to find his true ‘treasure in heaven,’ he must give his wealth to the poor and follow the way of Jesus. In both the Sermon on the Mount and the interaction with the rich young man, Jesus uses the word ‘perfect’ to demand a certain type of moral behavior that will reflect our attempt to know God fully and therefore always to seek his will in our lives.”

The Greek word Matthew uses is “teleios, an adjective that defines something as being complete, something that is ‘whole,’ ‘fully grown,’ ‘final.’”

We need to give special attention to what Jesus said up there on the mount, because it introduced his followers to the essence of the New Covenant — as Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai introduced the Israelites to the law of the Old Covenant. “By describing the type of perfect behavior to which we should aspire, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of what eternal life will be like in the kingdom of God: a life that is capable only of knowing peace, a life that is free from anxiety and filled with hope, a life that is loving and can promote only good. By illuminating for us the qualities that we should display to one another, Jesus is describing for us the very qualities that God himself displays toward us and all creation. The most remarkable of these qualities — and the one seemingly most beyond human reach — is God's capacity to pour out his love upon those unworthy of it.”

The comparisons Jesus sets up between the old code of living and the new would shock many Jews of his day, “who had been taught that hating an enemy is a good, even godly thing.” After all, shunning the unbelievers all about them, and keeping pure the special faith entrusted to the Chosen People, was the only way they had kept knowledge of the true God alive — and many times in the course of their history they had come near to losing it.

“Still,” writes Covington, “an exhortation to charity would not have been unusual in the society in which Matthew's Gospel was written. … The Old Testament, for instance, admonishes us to give aid to one's enemies in certain circumstances, and the Stoic and Cynic philosophers of Jesus’ day did emphasize that we should all love one another. But extending these aphorisms to the point of actually acting with love to an enemy — and thereby negating our ability to act with hate — is a teaching that seems to have come uniquely from Christ.”

This is where perfecting ourselves as human beings intersects with imitating God. “A love of enemies would have to be an imitation of the divine love that God extends to each of us, regardless of whether or not we deserve it (we don't), want it (not frequently enough), or will ever return it (impossible in like measure). And if under the influence of God's grace we can exhibit such a love, we will be participating, in advance, in God's new, recreated world where no hatred or sin will exist: a world like the perfect world he created for us in the first place, only more glorious, which will exist only when his kingdom is finally at hand.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.