On Being Perfect, Matthew 5:48

Have you ever fretted about the verse “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” Matthew 5:48? I have. When I was a child I thought this verse meant that I needed to be completely and utterly sinless or I was going to hell.

This morning I read this verse in Greek and for the first time, the context of the verse dawned on me. Jesus didn’t flippantly yell out a command: “Therefore, be perfect!” He was talking about an ancient command to love our neighbours. “You have heard that it was said, love your neighbour and hate your enemy. BUT I am saying to you, LOVE your ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:43-44.

Being “perfect” is about loving. It is about not only loving the people that are easy to love like family and friends. It means loving people of other skin colours, sexual preferences, nationalities and religions. It is about loving people you find difficult to love. Maybe you struggle with loving gay people. Or maybe you struggle with loving Muslims. It is okay to struggle. But what you need to understand first and foremost is that God loves all people, friend and foe. Jesus wasn’t telling us to love them without first loving them himself. In fact he refers to his father here—the ultimate authority—and says our father in heaven loves all his enemies. He even offers an illustration. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” verse 45. This is the context in which we learn how to love. We see it demonstrated by our “perfect” heavenly father.

Furthermore, this word perfect doesn’t mean sinless. The Greek words used in this verse are “teleioi” and “teleios.” “Teleios” means: full grown / mature / complete / completely good / completely operative / perfect. So perfection in this context basically means wholeness. “Teleioi” means you will be whole / complete / mature. “Teleioi” does not mean you MUST be perfect as a rule OR ELSE. “Teleioi” is a future tense verb describing how you WILL be perfect. You will be perfect when you love your enemies. Just like your heavenly father is true to himself, entirely complete and whole in his love for his enemies, you grow in maturity by loving your enemies. And I’m not convinced that this is a rule so much as a fact. The fact is, God will teach us all how to love our enemies—no matter how long it takes—and when we finally get to that point of really loving all people, we will be “teleios,” perfect, complete and mature.

Permission to be Happy

I’m taking a subject at Bible College called “Theological Reflection,” which involves pondering where I am at in my life theologically, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically.

Partly because of this subject, I’ve actually had to think a lot about how happy I am in my life right now … and how scary that is.

I was a pessimist growing up, with a deeply serious, melancholy personality. I often felt that my friendships were shallow and that most people didn’t know the real me. In fact, I didn’t know the real me. I was constantly trying to run away from the guilt and shame of my past imperfections. I even picked up and moved interstate as a young adult, in an attempt to make myself feel better, only to learn that all my problems came with me.

I suffered from depression for the first 4 years of adulthood. I didn’t think that my dreams would ever come true, that I would ever get married, that I would have the deep relationships I craved, or that I could actually be my true self. I was torn between wearing a façade of being a near-perfect, Christian woman, trapped in guilt and legalism; and the inherent belief that God’s love and grace has to be bigger than my failure, and for that matter, everyone else’s failures.

Then my mum got sick when I was 24, and I was still trying to find my feet as an adult in this world. No longer depressed per se, but still struggling with my dreams and my identity, with being single, and with trying to be a good Christian. Mum was sick for 4 years before she passed away and I spent those years caring for her, meanwhile working as hard as I could toward my dreams, writing books, trying to find the perfect guy to marry, building a piano teaching business, leading worship at church and pulling up the ranks of the worship team. Mum and I rubbed up against each other (as iron sharpens iron), and both started to deal with unresolved childhood issues. This in turn challenged what we believed about God and we both started to accept deep down that God is all-loving and all-forgiving.

Mum passed away when I was 28 and things in my life changed monumentally again. I not only lost my mum, but my entire theological foundation shifted as I became a Universalist-Christian. I changed churches and lost too many friends to count, including some that I never thought I would ever lose and still grieve over today. I failed a piano exam, and decided to prioritise my writing dreams over my musical aspirations. And I challenged myself to start writing publically about what I believe. Needless to say, my twenties were filled with struggle, grief, singleness and loneliness.

But then I hit thirty and I started to feel very secure in myself. I was no longer fighting who I really was, I was breaking down the facades. I met a man and started building a healthy relationship with him. I got married. My friends expanded to include my family-in-law and so many new relationships.

So here I am: content. And it scares me. I know what it’s like to be depressed and anxious. I know what it’s like to feel lonely and endlessly single. I know what it is like to grieve death. I know that things can change very suddenly for better or worse. Being happy, healthy, hopeful and content are fairly new to me and I’m somewhat afraid of losing these feelings. But I don’t want to live in fear, because it taints the blessings I have right now.

I also struggle with guilt. I feel guilty that not everyone is going through a season of happiness and contentment right now. I feel guilty for flaunting it, but I also feel as though I might burst if I don’t share it. Sometimes I feel guilty that I couldn’t make my mum’s life happier. As her oldest child I felt responsible for her happiness and often blamed myself if she was unhappy. So it is difficult to feel happy in light of the suffering that I saw in my Mum’s life at different stages – this I struggle with the most.

That’s why I need to give myself permission to be happy. Permission to bask in this season of contentment. Permission to pause and say thank you. Thank you to God for bringing me here. Thank you to my husband for loving me. Thank you to my family for accepting me. Thank you to the friends who have been around through so much of this, and to the newer ones who enrich my life.

And thank you to myself. For not dying. For not giving up. For pushing against the chains that bound me so that I could break free and become more truly myself. But even as I thank myself, I know I am really thanking God–the universal love–who lives in me.

What Language Does God Speak?

Hebrews 1:2-3 tells us that “In these last days he has spoken to us by his son … the exact representation of his being!” The synoptic Gospels all agree that Jesus held up love as the highest law (Mt 22:37-40, Mk 12:29-31, Lk 10:27). John took this one step further: “Love one another as I have loved you,” (Jn 13:34). Jesus didn’t merely command that we love, he demonstrated and embodied love. He instructed us to love even our enemies (Mt 5:44, Lk 6:27, 35) and he modelled that love in his treatment of women, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, Pharisees and Roman soldiers.

Jesus treated women with a great deal more dignity and respect than was culturally normal in his day and age. He argued for their rights in marriage (Mt 19), he touched and healed women considered untouchable and unclean (Mt 8), he forgave prostitutes without judgement (Jn 8) and he spoke kindly to a divorcee (Jn 4) who had three strikes against her: she was female, divorced and a Samaritan! His treatment of Samaritans in deeming them his neighbours was also unheard of (Lk 10). Similarly, though Jesus opposed the Pharisee’s teachings numerous times (Mt 5:20, 16:6, 23:13-39, Mk 2:24, Mk 3:6), he was always willing to converse and interact with them (Lk 7:36-50). Interestingly, while he dined with the Pharisees, a prostitute tried to express her love to Jesus in what was considered to be a very seductive manner. Jesus understood that she did not know any better and he treated her seduction as nothing less than an act of beautiful worship (see also Mk 14:1-9). While other people treated tax collectors as outcasts, Jesus associated with Zacchaeus as an equal (Lk 19). Jesus turned the other cheek in every regard, even when the Roman soldiers arrested him. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear and Jesus’ response was to heal the soldier and go with them quietly. He did not consider them his enemies (Mt 26:52, Lk 23:46). Jesus was anti-discriminatory in his approach to other religions, other classes, other races and the opposite sex.

The dilemma that the body of Christ faces today, is in being equally anti-discriminatory towards all people groups we could ever possibly encounter. In the past Christians have discriminated against left-handers with claims that it was a sin to be born left-handed because the “goats” are to be placed on Jesus’ left side (Mt 25:33, see also Gen 48:13-18). Christians have used multiple Biblical passages to warrant prejudice against women including but not limited to: “Women should remain silent in churches” (1 Cor 14:34 see also 1 Cor 11:5, Eph 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1-7 etc). Still today Christians justify racism with slogans such as “The children of Ham turned black for their sins.” Homophobia is the new racism. The fad today is to throw verses such as Romans 2:27 and Leviticus 18:22 at the GLBTI (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex) community and tell them that their sexual inclinations are sinful. When did God give the church the right to judge what is or is not evil, wrong, sinful, unhealthy or harmful? Did not Jesus say: “Do NOT judge … for in the same way you judge others, you will be judged!” (Mt 7:1-2)?

Jesus said: “There are Eunuchs who were born that way, and there are Eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs” (Mt 19:11-12). Eunuchs had different genitals and sexuality to other males and this passage blatantly says that some were born that way. Must we not consider, then, that it is possible to be born gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex? If the body of Christ includes murderers, rapists, alcoholics, adulterers, discriminators, bigots, racists, and homophobics, then it most certainly includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people as brothers and sisters!

If the body of Christ is truly going to extend the love of God and represent Jesus, then we must refrain from judgement toward the GLBTI community and welcome them into our churches without demanding change, with full acceptance, love and grace toward them.