Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:48b “. . .even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Jesus’ command is breathtaking. Be as perfect as your heavenly Father!!??! No way! is our first, flippant response, but we must quickly regain our bearing. Otherwise, we will make the same two mistakes Jesus’ first listeners committed.
Their first mistake was being satisfied with a standard less than absolute perfection. High standards are necessary to attain success in every field, be it sports, painting, architecture, music, or any other pursuit. The same is true of Christian living. As our behavior goals fall to a low level, they are no longer worthy goals. Objectives must ever be held beyond us in order to inspire us. Browning was right, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
The behavior standards we accept will determine whether we spend life pressing on to higher ground or being satisfied at comfortable resting points along the way. Relinquishing high ideals is dangerous. It robs us of a passion to excel, and makes us satisified with a shoddy, mundane life. For Christians, the worst imperfection is having no desire to improve. For saints, standing still is disallowed.
The crowd’s second mistake was their choosing of the wrong role models. They had decided to copy Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus commanded them to imitate their heavenly Father. Scribes and Pharisees loved only their friends. The Father’s love is all-inclusive, making no distinctions. Since our role model must be none other than our absolutely perfect Father in Heaven, we too must love all people, friend and foe. To prove His love for enemies, the Father let His Son go to Bethlehem and Calvary. Ever be asking, where have we gone to show our love for enemies? A handy love for only friends is flawed, imperfect. Only by going out of our way to show love for enemies do we display love as perfect as the Father’s.
In choosing our role models we choose our own future behavior, and Jesus commanded us to idolize the Supreme Hero, our heavenly Father. Our great guiding light, our driving piston, is to be enabled by the perfect Spirit to be like the perfect Father as revealed in the life of His perfect Son.
Jesus’ own perfect life proves our aspirations to be like the Father are not wild figments of our imagination. He showed us the way. He emptied Himself, and depended on God’s strength. Jesus in His person was deity, but in His behavior He was humanity deliberately choosing to rely on the Father’s power.
Everything Jesus did is within the scope of the power available to us from the Holy Spirit. Imitating the process Jesus exemplified for us, we accept no standard lower than perfection, no role model lower than God.
This does not mean we have license to be people of conceit. Braggadocio is forbidden. The exalted standard itself slays self-righteousness dead, drives us to an overwhelming sense of spiritual bankruptcy, and causes us to cry out to God for strength, for power to attain nothing less than perfection. We are aspirants who will never be able to say this side of Heaven, “I have arrived.”
In this life, perfection is for us a process, not a product. Believers are under construction. God is building perfection in us. Paul spoke of perfection in terms of process, not product. He disclaimed absolute perfection, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect:. . .I count not myself to have apprehended: but. . .reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark. . . .Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded” (PH 3:12ff).
Our Master also spoke in terms of process, saying, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (MT 5:6). Notice, hungering and thirsting are what God smiles on. To state a longing for more is not a confession of weakness or failure. Yearning is good, and since longing is what is blessed, Jesus made sure we would always have something more to long for.
We must keep perfect the ideal which draws us, though our attempts at reproducing it are imperfect. If our goal is ever perfection, and thus always unattainable, life will be constant adventure, a treasure hunt ever giving us new things to aim at. Pursuing a perfection which ever invites us yet always escapes us, we press ahead, never satisfied with anything short of the exciting prospect of perfection. The thrill of the hunt, a joy of anticipation, pushes us higher, farther, deeper.
At ordinations, Methodists ask, “Are you going on to perfection?” Candidates reply, “I am earnestly striving after it.” Amen. May we all answer likewise.
Matt. 6:1 “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of
them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.”
On guard! Be perfect, also be careful. Danger lurks in even our noblest aspirations. We can dream wonderful dreams, aspire to great heights, and then prostitute the vision by thinking how impressed others would be if we lived like that.
The error is not in doing good deeds publicly. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (MT 5:16). The sin is not in having onlookers, but in looking to see if they are looking. “To be seen” is “theathenai,” root of our word theatrical. Thus we could translate our verse as “Do not your alms before men theatrically.” No show-offs allowed. Do not showboat your religion.
If we are not primarily concerned about rewards from God, then we have them not. If our main desire is people’s admiration, it is the only reward we reap. We take up our reward in advance and have none left “of” the Father, or more literally “with” the Father, in the sense of it being beside Him in heaven. What a poor trade: to take temporary rewards now rather than everlasting rewards later.
Matt. 6:2a “Therefore. . .”
Regarding motives and rewards, we must especially “take heed” in our giving. How appropriate to reach a verse on giving at this particular hour in history. Last week, the world’s two most famous women died: Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Why did mystique and aura surround these two ladies? They gave. Princess Di held in her arms Angolan children dying of cancer. I have never done that. She touched AIDS patients. I have never done that. She walked through fields of land mines. I have never done that. Mother Teresa nursed the destitute. I have never done that. She sheltered the homeless in Calcutta. I have never done that.
Giving of our essence, our substance, our possessions, beautifies life. On the other hand, the smallest packages in the world are people wrapped up in themselves. I fear many of us, including myself, are small packages. As we sit at our Master’s feet these next few Sundays, I pray that we will learn from Him whose life was the most giving and thus the most beautiful ever lived, that we will begin to unwrap our dwarfed, packaged lives and let beauty spring forth from them.