Be ye Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
#3 in the Series “All I have Commanded You”
Primary Text: Matthew 5:43-48 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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the third in a twelve-part series of messages which seek to summarize the entire teaching of the Lord Jesus. I have suggested that His teaching may be compared to a wagon wheel with ten spokes. On that wagon wheel the rim that becomes the point at which the entire wheel touches reality is the command: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”—that place where we voluntarily accept God’s will. The first spoke is the command: “You must be born again”—we are not only saved by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, we are also open to the possibility of being repeatedly transformed by Him. The second spoke on the wheel is the command: “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Allow me to go down a rabbit trail for a moment. Houston is not usually thought of as being in the big leagues of crime. New York with the Mafia, Chicago with Al Capone, and Los Angeles with the Crips and the Bloods come to mind as the contenders for leaders in the crime hall of shame. But for a moment in the late ‘90’s up to 2001 Houston was the national capital of white collar corporate crime. The company was Enron, and the brains of the company was a brilliantly devious Chief Financial Officer by the name of Andrew Fastow. Suppose Billy Graham came to town to preach a crusade in the soon-to-be-renamed Enron field. Suppose there was a parade to the stadium through downtown, but when the motorcade passed in front of the Enron Building, Billy asked his driver to stop, and with cameras clicking and video rolling, he entered the building. He looked for a moment at the building directory, and then with reporters still in tow took an elevator to an office near the top floor. The office was marked “Director of accounting and Finance—Andrew Fastow.” Inside there was a man who everyone knew would be hauled into federal court for fraud and insider trading charges and who was responsible for the the shady deals that built Enron into a great house of cards that would take thousands of employees and their savings down with it when it fell. The preacher walked into the office, shook hands with Mr. Fastow, and said “God has sent me to Houston to come to your house for dinner this evening.” Pleased and flattered, Mr. Fastow, Houston’s most notorious white collar criminal, invited the preacher home. Do you think the headlines in the paper the next morning read “Preacher Proves He is Like God?” I don’t think so either.
As they saw Jesus going to the home of Zaccheus, the chief tax-collector for Rome, people were not thinking, “My, how perfect Jesus is.” They were thinking, “He is going to the home of a sinner!”
When Jesus says that we are to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, I believe we can safely suppose that Jesus is not referring to the qualities of God’s sovereignty. I don’t believe that Jesus means that we are to seek to be almighty, all-knowing, all-powerful, or perfect in unapproachable holiness. Instead, it seems clear from the rest of chapter 5 of Matthew that Jesus means that we are to be perfect in righteousness. This “righteousness” has to be clearly defined, however. Earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew Jesus tells us unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you can by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
I confess that I am afraid that when Jesus tells me to be perfect as the Heavenly Father, He means that I should never make any mistakes. My life has been one of many mistakes, and because I like to try to be funny, I constantly make regretful mistakes when I talk. In trying to be funny, I hurt people.
Jesus never denies that God’s existence is mistake-free, but in the stories Jesus tells about God . . . God seems very eccentric, to say the least. I am indebted to William Willimon for this realization. Consider the parable of the Sower where a farmer (whom the story implies to be God or one of his agents) scatters seed everywhere. Most farmers are careful to plant the seed where it will grow, but this farmer throws seed on the road, among the rocks, into weeds, and at soil that hasn’t even been plowed. Only one in five seeds lands where it can actually grow and bear fruit. What kind of a farmer is this? In another parable God appears as a farmer who plants his fields with wheat. His servants discover weeds growing among the grain and ask what they should do. He claims that an enemy has done this, but because he loves each wheat plant so much, he is afraid that if they try to pull the weeds they will damage the wheat. No good farmer would say “let the weeds grow together with the wheat until the harvest,” but this one does. Why? Finally, in another parable God is a shepherd with 100 sheep. When he discovers that one of them is missing, He leaves 99 sheep out in the field where the wolves could get them in order to search for the one lost one. What kind of shepherd risks 99 for the sake of one? God seems to have a foolishly soft heart.
Each of these parables demonstrate that although God is perfect, being mistake-free is not his greatest priority. Put another way, the center of God’s righteousness is something other than infallibility.
In the Lord’s Prayer there is a strange sentence: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The Bible says that God does not tempt anyone, so why on earth would it be necessary to ask him not to tempt us? The answer to this question has to do with what we think is the center of God’s perfection. If God’s righteousness has its source in his judgment (in the fact that He is judge of the world), then we will believe that He must be forever testing our goodness, faith, and obedience. The center of God’s perfection, however, is not his judgment but His compassion.
If we believe that our being perfect as God is perfect has to do with how perfectly we keep the rules, then when we will believe that He not only judges us according to the rules but we also can judge others according to the rules (which we, of course, understand perfectly). When Jesus said that our righteousness had to be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (who kept the rules VERY strictly) he didn’t mean that we had to be more strict but that we had to have a greater kind of righteousness.
The gospels show Jesus constantly showing that the heart of God’s righteousness is a heart of compassion. This is why God is a soft-hearted eccentric in Jesus’s parables. Jesus does all kinds of things that the Pharisees would never dream of doing—he allows a prostitute to wash his feet, he calls stinky fishermen to be his disciples, he speaks to a Samaritan woman, he forgives a woman caught in adultery, and so on. We know that we are on the right track here, because in the parallel passage in Luke, instead of “Be ye perfect,” Jesus says “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36)
The Greek words for compassion are only applied to Jesus in the Gospels, as at Mark 8:2 “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have nothing to eat.” In English the word “compassion” comes from two Latin words that mean “suffering with.” God’s heart is to suffer with us (the Greek words for “compassion” mean “gut feeling”, since the guts were considered to be what we call “the heart”, the place of sincere feeling). This involves much more than pity, which is simply feeling sorry for someone. Compassion certainly involves feeling, indeed, the major difference between compassion and mercy in the New Testament is that you can “show mercy” without feeling anything, but Jesus is “moved to compassion”. Compassion, however, adds two components to the feeling: 1. the ability to discern the place of pain and need in a person, even when that person is not externally pitiable; 2. the ability to act on that discernment to address a person’s need. Jesus says that God is moved with compassion toward everyone—he sends rain on the just and the unjust.
Almost everything that Jesus commands his disciples to do throughout the Gospels should be understood in the light of God’s heart of compassion. In the famous passage of the judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus judges the world not on the basis of the world’s ability to follow the rules, but on the basis of their ability to show mercy in a compassionate way.
This compassion is at times very active, as when Jesus heals the blind or the lepers. Sometimes compassion involves interrupting an activity and simply giving someone his undivided attention, as when Jesus says “Let the little children come to me” and then spends time with them. Sometimes compassion merely waits for another to make their own mistakes and come to a realization of their own need, as when the father waits for the Prodigal Son to come home in Luke 17. Occasionally compassion is confrontational as when Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple.
Through our selfishness and sin we choose to experience God as judge—we choose to believe that God is constantly putting us to the test. When we surrender our lives to Jesus and recognize his Lordship over us, we receive a new relationship to God—God ceases to be our judge and becomes our Father. Last week I showed how Jesus commands us to be constantly transformed, “Ye must be born again.” A great part of that transformation has to do with our change of heart. God wants to take from us a righteousness based on our critical observance of the rules by which we ourselves will judge others, and He wants to give us a righteousness based on compassion. In other words, He wants us to cease to measure people by how they have hurt us. He wants us to be able to discern the hurting places in people, to share that hurt, and to act in God’s power to help that hurt. It is that heart of compassion that moved Jesus to say “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” At that moment Jesus was as perfect as His heavenly Father.