Q: I know I’m a sinner, so what does Matthew 5:48 mean? Does God really expect me to be perfect?
A: Imagine the cover of a thick, glossy women’s magazine. There are screaming headlines about what’s in style, who’s beautiful, and a racy teaser about improving one’s sex life. It’s the kind of magazine that preys on the low self-esteem women have been taught to lug around in our souls—the sense of unworthiness that compels us to shell out five dollars for the chance to master the art of contemporary femininity. (Or make an attempt at it again, at least.) Even though these magazines are often filled with recycled variations of the same tips and tricks they’ve been publishing for years, they are irresistible to many women. We long to measure up.
But the magazine I’d like you to conjure in your mind is different. The airbrushed celebrity isn’t a reality TV starlet but a grinning Jesus, with blindingly white teeth and full, shiny hair, as though he’s just had a blowout at a fancy salon. And the headline plastered across his brow in hot pink says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It sounds silly, I know. But I’m convinced many contemporary Christians—perhaps especially women who are constantly pounded with the message that we need to work harder to be perfect—have been reading Christ’s words about “being perfect” () out of context. We’ve received a message as false and seductively frustrating as an advertiser’s promise to take us from “flabby to fabulous” in three short weeks.
Jesus' Idea of Perfection
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to those gathered:
You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43–48)
Rather than reading Christ’s words about being perfect as part of the Sermon on the Mount, we’ve instead been reading these verses as part and parcel of a perfectionistic society that values image over substance—and human accomplishment over the grace of God. But there is an enormous difference between emulating an idol and becoming a disciple of Christ.
To understand the heart of this teaching properly, we need to look at the word perfect as it is used in the text. To our ears, the word perfect means flawless, faultless—as good as it gets. (Airbrushed, even.)
The Greek word, however, that is commonly translated into English as “perfect” is teleios, and it has a far more nuanced connotation than mere perfection. It means “mature, complete.” So, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ’s injunction to “be perfect” is not general but specific: we’re called to be perfect in our love. It isn’t enough to love God, and self, and neighbor. To have perfect love—mature, complete love—we are to love our enemies.
We are to love like God loves.
Of course, if we’re honest, it’s only incrementally less difficult to love our enemies than it is for us to achieve moral perfection. Deepening our understanding of this teaching doesn’t actually make it any less easy to follow. Jesus’ command to be perfect is deeply challenging. We will fail—and because one of the sacred tenets of perfectionism is never, ever to fail, it feels safer to us not even to try. We shrug our shoulders and murmur about the impossibility of these kingdom ideals. Or, alternatively, we try hard and appear to succeed. We manage to dot all our spiritual i’s and cross all our discipleship t’s, striving for perfection all the while. We faithfully attend our Bible studies. We sign up to deliver meals to those in need. We collect pennies in a jar on the counter for the mission trip. As we labor to maintain our impeccable record, we are filled, slowly but surely, with pride in our own goodness and in our accomplishments rather than with humble, heartfelt gratitude for God’s grace. And when this happens—and, oh, does it happen!—we are not succeeding but failing. We have missed the mark completely.
Sometimes I’m convinced we would avoid many of our spiritual ailments if we could only believe and live by the simple message we try so hard to convey to our children: God loves us—even in our imperfection.
In fact, it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us (). We don’t have to be perfect for God to love us because God already loves us—and went to extraordinary lengths to save us—just as we are. What saves us isn’t what we do but what God does. We enter the life of discipleship not to earn God’s love and grace but as our faithful response to it.
The root of perfectionism is the fear that we aren’t loved if we aren’t perfect; this biblical truth uproots that lie.
God loves us exactly as we are—but the oft-repeated aphorism is also true: “God loves us too much to let us stay that way.” Our sinfulness causes altogether too much pain in our lives, in the lives of those we love, and in our world. Our incomplete love leaves us completely broken, and God longs for us to experience wholeness again.
Reflecting God's Mature Love
There is an irony at the heart of the Christian faith: Christ’s perfect love meant his body was broken so we might be made whole. We know that through Christ, God has accomplished what we never could on our own. We experience a wholeness and completeness in and through Christ that is, quite literally, life-saving.
And it is in this moment of humility, gratitude, and awe at the wondrous love of Christ that we best read the Sermon on the Mount, including the words of Matthew 5:48. This verse is as convicting as it is compelling; it’s a radical way of life that the real Jesus paints.
But rather than backing away slowly, knowing that no sooner shall we try for perfection than we’ll fail, we can proceed with an invigorated desire to live in obedience and committed discipleship. We can pray our love will grow to be more mature, and complete, and more accurately reflect the love of God. We can confess our limits and our failures without fear. We can present our imperfect love and broken relationships to God, trusting we can yet receive his love, grace, forgiveness, and healing.
We can trust that the one whose body was broken can yet make us whole. In the fullness of time, the one who was truly perfect shall perfect even us.
Katherine Willis Pershey is an Associate Minister at First Congregational Church of Western Springs. She is a member of the Ink Collective, the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family, and regular contributor to the Christian Century and A Deeper Story. Connect with Katherine on Twitter at @kwpershey or on her website, KatherineWillisPershey.com.