How perfect do we have to be? Did not Jesus tell us to be as perfect as God? How is that even possible?
Let us understand the measure of love that is expected from Christians.
We will examine an eye for an eye, insults, generosity, enemies, borrowers and God’s love.
In Matthew 5:38 Jesus addressed a law that many have applied in retaliation, an eye for an eye. Legally, this is sometimes called the lex talionis. A vindictive understanding of that law is to trade bomb for bomb and life for life. This kind of tit for tat only escalates hostilities and hinders peace. A more amicable course is monetary compensation equal to an eye. It is certainly a less inflammatory approach to social justice than revenge. However, Jesus indicated an even better application of the the eye for an eye principle. As with all of Jesus’ teachings, this too is very hard to do. Jesus suggested that if we have been responsible for injury to another, go above and beyond in compensation. Jesus wants us to go further than mere justice. He wants us to create good will.
A slap on the cheek is a serious affront. A slap on the right cheek as Jesus suggested in Matthew 5:39 could refer to a backhanded slap from a right-handed person, an even more serious indignity. Rather than retaliating for insults, Jesus strangely asked his disciples to humiliate themselves by allowing further slaps. Even the business world understands that if we have a customer with a complaint, the best thing to do is to allow them to vent without interruption, to get it off their chest. In so doing, they have time to calm down, and having gotten a hearing, often become a more satisfied customer. If even the carnal world understands how to win people, by respectfully giving them opportunity to fully complain, then how much more should we take insults in order to win peace for Christ.
So you lost in court and now they’re going to take the shirt off your back. How can you possibly win? Paul’s commentary on this kind of thing was that perhaps we lost before we even got to court. Did we let things go too far (1 Corinthians 6:7)? Did we fail to create peace, or were we actually at fault? It does not really matter. Jesus told his disciples how to really win in heaven’s eyes — give more than was asked for — go way above the settlement price (Matthew 5:40). If someone sues us for the shirt off our backs, we are encouraged to gift wrap our coat as well and give it away to the plaintiff. Does Jesus want us to be suckers who are taken advantage of, or does living generously really work?
Helping an enemy
In some countries if a uniformed soldier is hitch-hiking on the side of the road, it is illegal to just keep going. A driver must stop and give him a ride. What if that soldier was from enemy occupation forces? Would we take offense at the imposition? Probably! In Roman occupied Palestine of Jesus’ day, there was a similar law. If a Roman soldier asked any Jew for help, they were required to come to their aid. Jesus alluded to just such a scenario in Matthew 5:41 where it was common for an enemy soldier to ask a Jew to carry arms for a distance. Jesus suggested helping out to double the amount asked. Jesus challenges us by teaching what is the exact opposite of our natural inclination. God is impartial and treats all people equally. Do we?
Lending to a borrower
We have all lent something which has not been returned, whether it be a book, lawnmower or money. It makes us reluctant to lend again. Jesus encouraged his disciples to lend to the borrower (Matthew 5:42) and not turn him away. Does this mean that we are to lend until we have no money? That is a natural conclusion, which leads some to criticize Jesus. He spoke of starting with one borrower, not an unlimited number. Our natural inclination is the opposite extreme, not to lend at all or with very few exceptions for family or close friends. It is that extreme that Jesus challenged his disciples to reconsider. He challenges us also to consider lending without discrimination. Naturally, there are boundaries and limitations, but perhaps we could think about starting with at least one, like Jesus spoke about.
One of the central tenets of the Bible is love your neighbor. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus expanded the traditional understanding of neighbor to include everyone. We normally love our friends but discriminate against our foes. Jesus wants us to love even our enemies. How is that possible? How can that make any sense in a world where every generation has gone to war against one form of enemy or another? We all have personal, criminal, political and foreign enemies. Are we to love them all? We tend to follow the example of those decent folks around us who treat their friends with respect and dignity, but Jesus challenged us to live above the standard of our neighbors. We are to live by heavenly standards. Those standards are not defined by address, flag or national border, but by God alone.
Some Christians are nitpickers. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus taught the disciples to become perfect and many understand that to be even fussier than the tradition-burdened Pharisees. Yet being overly concerned with non-essential details is not what Jesus meant at all. The word often rendered as perfect is better understood to mean mature or complete. It has nothing to do with nit-picky Christianity at all. Being obsessed with non-essentials is a mark of spiritual immaturity. Mature Christians are salty. They taste good. Mature Christians are a bright shining light. They are liberated from picky legalism. Mature Christians reconcile rather than harbor grudges. They preserve the sanctity of marriage. They are not pretentious, create good will and take insults without retribution. They are a very generous people rather than quibbling and would treat an enemy the same as a friend.
Honoring bad parents
Must we honor even bad parents? No parent is perfect, but some are really bad. Some verbally or physically abuse their children to such an extent that deep scars remain. What does Jesus require? In John 15:9-17 he taught the general idea that we are to love each other. And for enemies he taught that we should love them too (Matthew 5:44). Some of our worst enemies can be family members. Jesus reminded us to pray that God will forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and that if we forgive others their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive us (Matthew 6:9-15). As hard as that may be, one way of honoring our parents is to forgive them. Forgiveness also releases us from an emotional prison. Honoring even bad parents is for our good.
Does Jesus call for sinless perfection
Matthew 5:48 is a puzzle for many of us because when we think of the word perfect in English, we think of sinless perfection. However, that is impossible. On the one hand, the Greek word actually means mature or complete. In context Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so that we may be the children of our Father in heaven. On the other hand, the context is complete love like our Father’s, in loving our enemies. Luke 6:35-36 explains the same teaching in different words, that we are to love our enemies and be merciful, just as our Father is merciful. Perfect love is what Jesus demands. A Christian cannot be contented with love only towards a friend, but strive towards a higher, more perfect love like that of God.
It is impossible for us to live morally perfect lives, but we can grow in God’s love. Let’s start with our closest enemy.