How to Be Perfect
There's a verse in the Bible that up until recently, I have always wished wasn't in the Bible. It's this one:
Matthew 5:48 - Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When I was a kid, I would have this verse tossed in my face in a variety of church-y settings, to remind me that I needed to constantly be avoiding sin and sinful people in order to be as perfect as possible.
But mostly the verse was used to rub it in that I was constantly falling down on the job when it came to living as sinlessly as possible. Despite my failure, it was incumbent upon me to do everything I could to be "perfect" in my behavior just like God is perfect in God's behavior.
By the way, this is not only the worst kind of interpretation of that verse, it's also really, really bad theology.
Still, this verse has haunted me for a long time. Whenever anyone brings it up, I always cringe and find myself reverting back to that shame-filled middle schooler, who started realizing that the theological house of cards he'd been building was just one tiny gust of wind from crashing to the ground.
Then a conversation with a friend sparked my imagination about this text and I actually did something that I'd not done before---I read the verse in context with the verses that preceded it:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Now read this verse after reading all of those:
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This last verse is not disconnected from the previous ones. It doesn't stand alone in the ether as some testament to how you need to refrain from sinning, and if you don't (which you probably won't because you're a wretch), you won't measure up.
Let's look carefully at it. To be perfect is being described by Jesus this way:
1. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
2. Realize that everyone is welcome in God's grace-filled economy.
The way Jesus lays this out has very little do with behavior modification, "holy" living and avoiding "sin," and much more to do with radical love and inclusive grace for imperfect, broken people... just like you, and me.
Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:
Divine perfection is precisely the ability to include and and forgive all imperfections.