One of the major themes of this blog is the importance of clarifying and privileging the teachings of Jesus in every interaction with the Bible. My understanding of scripture as consisting of multiple subjective witnesses to claims and experiences of God in the history of Israel means that I must reject a flat or systematic reading of the Bible in favor of a Jesus-shaped critical reading of the entire library. This is a fruitful approach and, I believe, the only tenable one for a Christian. However, it is not always particularly safe or tidy. Jesus’ teaching seems to get more narrow and difficult the more one studies it.
Consider the famous saying from the Sermon on the Mount that you must “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). In English and out-of-context, this sounds like an impossible mandate. “Be flawless and immaculate, just like your abstract notion of a Supreme Being. Start… now!” Um, sure. I’ll get right on that.
The Gospel of Technical Perfection (and Inevitable Failure)
This statement comes from Jesus and so carries the weight of a command, yet it is so vaguely defined in isolation as to invite all manner of interpretive reappropriation. Here’s how it worked in the evangelical world in which I grew up: God demands that you must be technically perfect in your obedience to His Word (the whole Bible) in order to enter His presence (in heaven when you die), but no one can ever live up to this standard and be worthy by their own efforts and that is why we need a savior to die for us! I was taught this message over and over, it was called “the gospel,” and evangelists like Ray Comfort continue to shout it into their neighbors’ faces on a daily basis.
Is this really what Jesus was talking about? Did Jesus knowingly preach an impossible technical standard simply to illustrate people’s need for a religious solution to their abstract “sin problem”? Many Christians simply assume this to be the case, but it is a gross misreading of Jesus and a misappropriation of his real message.
The Ethical Gospel of Jesus: How to (Really) Be Perfect
Despite the vigor with which some Christian traditions have worked to marginalize and dilute his teaching, it’s clear from the gospel texts that Jesus was primarily a teacher. He was a rabbi who set forth an ethical vision, a dream of how human beings ought to live in light of what he understood God to be like. His sayings and parables construct a world of imagination and possibility into which his listeners are invited. The saying in question is a prime example, presented here in fuller context:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy!’ But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! That way, you’ll be children of your father in heaven! After all, he makes his sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust. Look at it like this: if you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax-collectors do that, don’t they? And if you only greet your own family, what’s so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don’t they? Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48, KNT)
Three observations about this passage:
- The saying has a context, and it is radical, inclusive love – even love for one’s enemies.
- There is absolutely no indication that Jesus thinks his hearers incapable of responding to this teaching.
- The Greek word translated “perfect” elsewhere indicates maturity and advancement rather than technical proficiency (see Philippians 3:15, James 1:4).
Jesus does not call his followers to the doom and despair of failing to fulfill a technical obligation to religious laws and regulations. He invites his hearers to grow up and be more like God, to give up the petty divisions and bigotries that define our sense of self and community, to embrace and include all just like God does. Of course, if we’re unable or unwilling to envision God the way Jesus does, how can we endeavor to emulate that God? In America, many religious figures and organizations move in the opposite direction, projecting and perpetuating a God who is less mature and inclusive than they are and calling their cohorts to follow that regressive path. These watchdogs of the “true faith” preach against tolerance and openhearted love, calling their followers “back to the Bible” or “back to God.” Back to which God? Surely not the God of Jesus.
For Jesus, perfection is the triumph of love over hate, embrace over condemnation, inclusion over exclusion, and forgiveness over accusation. This perfection is not unattainable or unrealistic, it is ours for the taking. We can do this!