Jesus Expects You to Be Perfect

Image result for perfect season nfl

When I was younger, I was obsessed with the NFL. I loved watching, I loved pretending to play, I loved reading about it. I would watch every Sunday. I memorized every Super Bowl winner. I couldn’t get enough.

I was intrigued when I learned that in the history of the NFL since the Super Bowl was invented, only one team has ever finished an entire season without losing at least one game, and that team was the 1972 Miami Dolphins. A few have gotten close, but haven’t quite made it.

The most recent close-call was the 2007 New England Patriots. This team made it all the way to the Super Bowl without losing a game, and then, in a dramatic upset, they lost to the New York Giants. The 1972 Dolphins retained their title as the “Only Perfect Team.”

The word perfect usually means for us something like “the best,” or “without error.” Nothing wrong at all. So when we talk about the perfect day, the perfect meal, a perfect test score, we mean that it couldn’t have been any better.

On a few occasions when I have spoken with those who are outside the church, I have heard them say, “The reason that I do not go to church is that the church is full of hypocrites. Christians think they are perfect, but I know better…!” In my experience, serious Christians are far more inclined to go in the opposite direction — it is their imperfection that functions as the foundation of their faith. They know just how non-perfect they are; this is why they so happily receive the grace of God through Jesus. I have heard, in fact, many Christians say — either in word or via bumper sticker — that “I’m a Christian; I’m not perfect.” In other words, they claim that their being a Christian is a way of expressing how short they fall.

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says to his audience, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus issues several difficult commands in the Bible. He says to one, “Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” He says to others, “If you even so much as have a lustful thought in your heart, you have committed adultery.” But I have to say that for me, more than any of these, I am not sure what to do when Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If perfect means what I think it means, then I know I’m far from perfect, and have no hope of getting there. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, just between you and me: I know you’re not perfect, either. Don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone.

So how can we take seriously what Jesus says here? If Jesus means what he says, then what is he commanding? It would perhaps be helpful to begin by looking more closely at what he means by the word perfect. If you were to look at the Greek text of the New Testament, you would discover that the word translated perfect comes from the Greek word telos. This word telos means “ultimate aim or object.” It is as if you are standing at the starting line of a race, and you look out to the checkered flag. The flag is the telos — the goal, the objective, the aim. This word that has often been translated perfect might be more appropriately translated complete, as many modern translations have it. “Be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.” This helps to bring some clarity. I can complete a race without it being a perfect race — I might fall down several times along the way, bumping and bruising myself to get there, but still arrive.

But I’m still left wondering: complete in what sense? What is the aim, the objective? How could I possibly be complete in any way comparable to God? I would like to identify what this is not in order to bring better understanding to what it is. First, Jesus does not envision complete, perfect faithfulness. He is not so naïve as to assume that those who follow him will never mess up. In 1 John 1:8, the author says, “He who claims that he is without sin is a liar, and the truth is not with him.” Jesus is not saying to his followers here, “Be completely faithful, therefore, as your heavenly Father is completely faithful.”

Neither does Jesus imagine that his followers would be complete, perfect in power. He does not imagine that we would be able completely to overcome anything that comes against us, that we would be completely free from sickness or disease, that we would be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. In 2 Corinthians 12:8–10, Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh.” We cannot be sure about what he means here, but whatever this “thorn” might be, it was something undesirable. Paul says that he requested three times that the Lord take it away. Then, he conveys how the Lord responded to him: “My power is made perfect, complete in weakness.” It is often through human weakness, not power, that God is revealed. God chooses that which is deemed impotent by the world and reveals through it his glory. Jesus is born of a young (probably twelve- to thirteen-year-old!) peasant woman — definitely not the image of power. Jesus is not saying in Matthew, “Be completely powerful, therefore, as your heavenly Father is completely powerful.”

Finally, he does not think that we could be complete, perfect in knowledge. When my brother was in second grade, he came home one day, strutted into the kitchen, and said, “Mom, I want to learn a foreign language.” She replied, “Oh yeah? And why is that?” He responded, “Well, I’m in second grade now, so I’ve basically mastered the English language.” How often do we think we know more than we really know! The older I get, the more I realize what I do not know. If you hang around the church very long, you’ll see that there is a lot we do not understand. You might hear us say, “God is one. There is only one God. But…God is three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. But only one God…” Or, “Jesus was fully human. But he was also fully God.” The other day, I heard a mother talking about a deep theological conversation she was having with her five-year-old. “Mommy, when was God born?” “Uh…God wasn’t born. God was just always there.” “Mom, that doesn’t make any sense!” Tell me about it, kid! Whatever else Jesus might have meant, he surely did not wish to say, “Be completely knowledgeable, therefore, as your heavenly Father is completely knowledgeable.”

If we wish to get a better sense of what Jesus has in mind, we need only to return to the passage we have read. There, he says this: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you.” Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Do you have any enemies? I had an enemy during my sophomore year in high school. His name was Josh. (This is not his real name.) Now, Josh hadn’t hurt me, he hadn’t insulted me. In fact, he hadn’t really done anything to me. But Josh was dating Sarah. (Also not her real name.) And I didn’t think he should be dating Sarah. Sarah and I had choir together. The happiest moment of my daily schedule was walking to and from choir with Sarah. The worst part of my day was returning to the cafeteria for lunch, to see Josh waiting for her. I don’t think I ever prayed for Josh. If I did, it probably was something like, “Dear God, please help Josh’s parents to find a new job in Anchorage, Alaska.”

Who are your enemies? Osama bin Laden? Adolf Hitler? Kim Jong-un? Nero? Donald Trump? Is it your ex-spouse? Is it your cousin, your mother, your son? Perhaps it’s your actual neighbor. We all have enemies. Jesus knows we have enemies. Jesus had enemies. And still, Jesus could boldly command, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

The reason he gives for this is this: “When you do this, you act as children of your Father in heaven.” It’s tough when you grow up to realize that you’ve become the very parents you said you would never imitate. If you were to look at our children, you would notice quite quickly which traits they inherit from which parent. Two have dark hair; two have lighter hair. Two sit down at meal time and inhale their food; two are not very interested. The first two years of our oldest son’s life, my wife was convinced that something was wrong, that he was broken. She was convinced of this because every day, he would pop up at 5:00 a.m., bright-eyed and ready to go. She was sure that no reasonable human being would ever wake up that early on purpose! Sorry, Robin, but you married an early-riser!

Jesus says to the crowd that they will be known as children of their Father in heaven not by how many Bible verses they can recite; not by how often they go to church; not by how much money they donate. He says that they will be known to the world as children of their Father in heaven when they love even their enemies. He says that the Father gives sunshine to the faithful and to the wicked; he pours rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He makes no distinctions in bestowing his benevolence. He loves all. So Jesus says, “Be complete in showing love to alleven your enemies — just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to all.”

Perhaps Jesus is naïve in thinking that we can actually love all, including our enemies. We might be inclined to think that such a thing is impossible; that we could be so completely consumed with love of God and love of others that this love motivates all we think or do. It is impossible. But we worship a God for whom all things are possible.