Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Many Christians have been puzzled by Jesus’ words at the close of today’s Gospel: “You must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is unattainable, isn’t it? Christians very clearly affirm that all of us will sin. And doesn’t Jesus’ entire ministry grate against this kind of thinking? His parables, the way he treats sinners ― it all privileges mercy over against a kind of “lift-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” brand of spiritual perfection. So what’s going on here? How should we interpret Jesus’ exhortation to perfection?
To answer this, let’s look at the examples Jesus gives leading up to his words here. He tells us that when someone strikes you on the cheek, you should just offer them your other cheek too. And should someone sue you for your inner garment, you should just give them your coat too (which, by law, you could not also be sued for, because then you’d be naked!). This almost makes Jesus’ words even more unsettling. Not only does he want us to be perfect, but perfection looks like taking two shots to the face and going around naked! Again, what’s the point of all this?
For Jesus, human beings too often live by a misguided logic of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” ― if someone wrongs me, I get to wrong them back. Jesus’ command to debase yourself instead of retaliate undercuts all that. “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies” (Mt 5:43-44). Jesus wants to introduce a new logic, a logic of mercy.
Jesus’ command to “be perfect” is meant to gather together all the radical things he’s said about loving your enemy. What it means to “be perfect,” then, is to love your enemies, is to love the people who despise you. The point that Jesus seems to be making is not that it’s somehow incumbent upon you to lift yourself up by your bootstraps and make yourself perfect like God is perfect. Obviously, no one can do that. Neither are you required to present some impossible spiritual résumé upon your death.
The point Jesus seems to be making, rather, is that when you do these kinds of things ― when you turn the other cheek, when you find a way to love your enemy, when you forgive someone who has seriously hurt you ― you are moving toward perfection, even if you have not yet finally arrived there. Being merciful toward one’s enemies is the road to perfection. Indeed, we should notice that, in Luke’s Gospel ― when Jesus’ same teachings on turning the other cheek are recorded ― Jesus finishes with this: “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). Jesus appears to use the word “perfect” interchangeably with “merciful.” To be “perfect” is to be merciful.
Look closely at what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” First and foremost, then, Jesus has been describing for us the way in which God is perfect. And the way in which God is perfect ― the way in which God loves ― is by forgiving those who have wronged him, by loving his enemies. Recall Jesus’ prayer while he is being nailed to the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Indeed, when we learn to love our enemies we begin to move toward perfection. We begin to look more like God. We begin to bear a resemblance to our heavenly Father, our Father who is perfect, even if we know that ― this side of heaven ― we will never ultimately arrive at perfection.
And here’s the thing about Jesus’ command from today’s Gospel ― “you must be perfect.” Grammatically, in the original Greek, the command is in the future indicative. That means it could be translated as, “you will be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So perhaps there’s a broader way to interpret Jesus’ words: they are a promise. We don’t need to squint to see that our lives today are far from perfect. But Jesus’ words are a promise that someday they will be. His words are a promise that someday ― unless we shipwreck our whole faith ― we will love in a way that is reminiscent of the Father’s love, even if that’s not until the next world.
~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.
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