You, Therefore, Must Be Perfect (Matt. 5:20)
by Fred B. Craddock
Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 7-14, 1990, p. 123, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Those who hear Jesus’ teachings are struck, some quite deeply, by the level of ethical conduct expected of his followers. Some, to be sure, become his disciples rather casually, half-listening, really hearing him only later when crises or guilt plunge them into a serious reflection on their baptismal vows. Others hear him quite clearly, pause to consider alternatives and then in penitence and prayer move into his way with fear and trembling. Still others, hearing in Jesus’ words a path too steep and finding in themselves insufficient willingness for such a life, turn sadly away.
All of them respond to that which is avoidably clear in Jesus’ teaching: the high demands of discipleship. "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20) . In other words, consider the standard set by those Jews most concerned with understanding and obeying God’s commands and then surpass that standard. According to Matthew, Jesus elaborates on this expected righteousness in a series of six "for instances." Unfortunately, many commentators have called this section of the Sermon on the Mount the "six antitheses" (Matt. 5:21-48) as though Jesus were setting his teaching over against that of the Jewish tradition. However, in the preceding paragraph Jesus makes it clear that he came not to abolish that tradition but to bring it to completion (vv. 17-20) . Therefore, Jesus’ "But I say to you" builds upon rather than opposes his "You have heard that it was said." It is most important to notice that Jesus spells out the higher righteousness in these six instances in terms of relationships: with a brother (or sister) , with those of the opposite sex, with one’s spouse, with oneself, with aggressors and with neighbors and enemies.
Matthew 5:38-48 places before us the two final specific instances, which relate to aggressors against us and to those in the general categories of neighbors and enemies. Needless to say, the demands of this text constitute a rather steep and difficult climb along the way. It is no easy matter for disciples to avoid retaliating on the one hand and yet to refuse to lie down passively, immobilized by a victim mentality, on the other. But far above these rising slopes stands the seemingly unattainable peak which marks the end of this phase of the sermon: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
How are Jesus’ followers to hear such a word? Many a sincere and willing disciple has concluded that Jesus stands alone on this height. Perhaps so, but then why would he command an impossibility? Such expectations seem counterproductive, resulting in behavior and relationships eroded by self-doubt, guilt, frustration and a sense of futility. Through the years the church has sought to interpret the demand for perfection in ways that relieve it of the despair of ethical failure: The language in this command is hyperbolic, says the church, and not to be taken literally. No, says the church, the language is literal, but since perfection is impossible, the command compels us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. Yes, says the church, the command is impossible to achieve, but we should try anyway. The call to perfection, says the church, is not for all disciples but only for those very few who are able to form that inner circle around Jesus. Actually, says the church, "You must be perfect" is not a command at all but a promise to be fulfilled in the life to come. To these and other such interpretations the disciple listens, wanting to feel relief but in fact feeling very uncertain.
It helps to attend more carefully to the word "perfect." The word does not mean morally flawless but rather mature, complete, full grown, not partial. Luke uses the word to speak of fruit maturing (8:14) and a course being finished (13:32) . John uses it to describe the fully realized unity of Jesus’ followers (17:23) and James employs the same word to characterize works as the completion of faith (2:22) . Paul’s favorite use of the word is to portray the quality of maturity among Christians (I Cor. 2:6; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:12, 15) .
However, this command to be perfect comes most clearly into focus and into the realm of reasonable expectation when viewed within its context. First, the call to perfection comes within a discussion of relationships. Second, Jesus rejects for his followers relationships that are based on the double standard of love for the neighbor and hatred for the enemy. The flaw in such relationships is that they are entirely determined by the other person: the one who is friendly is treated as a friend; the one who behaves as an enemy is an object of hatred; the one who speaks is spoken to; the one who spurns is spurned.
Third, Jesus says that one’s life is not to be determined by friend or foe but by God, who relates to all not on the basis of their behavior or attitude toward God but according to God’s own nature, which is love. God does not react, but acts out of love toward the just and unjust, the good and the evil. God is thus portrayed as perfect in relationships, that is, complete: not partial but impartial. God’s perfection in this context is, therefore, love offered without partiality.
Jesus calls on his followers to be children of God in this same quality. "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." In other words, you must love without partiality, as God does. Thus understood, perfection is not only possible but actually realized whenever and wherever our relationships come under the reign of God.