“…But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father…So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-45a, 48)
What does Jesus mean here when he says, “be perfect”? Does he mean: be totally without sin, without fault? be without pride, greed, envy, malice, lust, sloth? Or is just avoiding outright sin not what he’s getting at here?
In the passage, Jesus says that to be like our heavenly Father, we must be willing to do good to those people who will never repay us or be nice to us. He even raises the bar: we’re to love those who are outright mean, nasty, or even cruel to us. We’re to pray for them, asking for their good, asking God to bless them. That is what Jesus modeled for us on the Cross: “Father, forgive them…” It’s what St Stephen did as he was being stoned for his witness to Christ: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them…” (Acts 7:60).
The kind of perfection Jesus seems to be talking about is the perfection of unselfish love, a love you and I don’t naturally possess.
In the Gospel of Luke (6:35-36), a parallel passage to this one in Matthew, Jesus says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” rather than, “…be perfect…”. That’s helpful. “Perfection” sounds not only impossible but also profoundly intimidating. Yet such mercy is what we often see in the lives of the saints: it’s a mercy which images God’s own kindness to those who don’t deserve it, to those who have mistreated them.
God has shown all of us this mercy on Calvary. His love has sought us out and offered to all of fallen humanity this undeserved and bountiful mercy. None of us are good or righteous, let alone perfect. Not one of us deserves anything at all except the just punishment for our many sins (Romans 5:8). Yet Jesus died for love of us on the Cross.
We have been shown extraordinary mercy, for we have not only been forgiven, but also showered with unfathomable love and graces too numerous to count. What Jesus wants is for us to pass on this divine mercy through the enablement of his Spirit within us.
We are to give to others what has been poured into us by God’s Spirit: undeserved mercy, kindness and generous love (Romans 5:5). Not an easy task, for it requires lifelong persevering practice. Yet that’s what “perfection” looks like in Jesus’ book; that’s the measure of our love for him.