One of the most theologically divisive passages in scripture is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Interpretations of this passage run to every extreme, from claiming that moral perfection is something that Christians can live for an indefinite period (see John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) to claiming that Christians can’t be expected to do any good at all, and that this impossible standard is set up simply to drive us into desperation and, finally, into grace (see Martin Lloyd-Jones,Studies in the Sermon on the Mount).
It’s very interesting seeing the casuistic gymnastics theologians will go through in order to fit this statement into their framework, but it’s particularly amusing when the meaning of the passage is so clear. The most important word is not actually ‘perfect,’ it is ‘therefore.’ In interpreting the Bible (any literature, really) words like ‘therefore’ are incredibly significant, because they show the authors train of thought.
So what do we see right before this passage?
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (src)
It’s so clear.
The perfect that Jesus demands of us is the perfection of God’s love. To be perfect, total, undiscriminating in our love, as God is. This isn’t moral perfectionism, and this isn’t something we have to build toward over years of gradual sanctification. There is no reason to think we couldn’t begin doing it today. We only have to realize that it is the way of Jesus, to make no difference between friend and enemy, neighbor or foreigner, reliable or untrustworthy, victim or persecutor.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. It’s easy. You just do it.