Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
I thought the words of Jesus were meant to be encouraging! I thought they should comfort and guide and bring hope. Okay, I don’t really think that. I know that Jesus’ words are often abrasive and convicting. I know that his words do give guidance and hope, but also correction and challenge. I know that his words are sometimes tough to take, even though they are desperately needed.
But be perfect?! Seriously, this can feel like things are being taken a bit too far. I mean, the whole reason we come to Jesus and fall at his feet and embrace the grace he offers is because we know we aren’t perfect, right? If I could be as God is I wouldn’t need God to rescue me.
So what is this, a joke of some kind? A dangling carrot we are supposed to spend our whole lives running after knowing that it will always be too far away—always out of reach? Or is it something else?
There is hope for these words! (Or I guess I should say there is hope for those of us who read these words!) Luke records the same teaching of Jesus, the same words. But in place of the words “perfect” he uses a different word.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:36
Same context, same topic of teaching, same sentence…sort of. One writer records it with the word perfect, one with the word mercy. And most Biblical scholars (that’s people way smarter than you and me who speak the ancient languages the Bible was originally written in) agree that the meaning of both is the same.
Some how to be merciful as God is merciful—which is to have compassion for what he has compassion for, to see with his eyes of mercy, and extend grace as freely as he does—is to be perfect.
This clues me in to the fact that the Bible means something wholly different than I do when it uses the word perfect. It’s not looking for someone who is always right, but always kind. Not someone who never makes mistakes, but one who seeks to err on the side of generous mercy, not a withholding of love.
This whole concept of seeking to live in perfect mercy, not perfect behavior, makes a lot of sense in light of what Jesus is talking about back in Matthew 5. Jesus was talking about interacting with our enemies. Calling on us to love them. And then he throws in this statement about being perfect? But Luke renders it as mercy.
It’s the idea of living in the wholeness mercy. Not doling out mercy at just the right time to just the right people who deserve it. Not piece-mealing it out so people appreciate it and don’t take advantage. Jesus gave of himself knowing that his mercy would be taken advantage of, that it would be underappreciated and misunderstood. But still he gave grace wholly, perfectly.
I like the way the Message puts these words from Matthew 5:48:
Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a tall order. It’s still going to be a lifelong struggle to embody mercy as Jesus did. To become grace to the world will not be easy. But it seems more right—more in line with Jesus, his teaching and his life. It’s not about acting right, but acting in mercy and compassion.
I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind. Luke 6:35-36 (MSG)