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27 October 2019

Perfect as the Heavenly Father

SYNOPSIS:   Mercy and love are the defining characteristics of the disciple of Jesus and reflections of the nature of God – Matthew 5:48.

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Christians are often confused or even overwhelmed by the exhortation of Jesus given as part of his Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In this command, “perfect” is often assumed to mean conformance to some unobtainable standard of Divine righteousness. But how can any human ever hope to emulate the perfect righteousness of God, let alone cease from all sin?

(Matthew 5:43-48) – “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Be loving your enemies and praying for them who are persecuting you: That ye may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens: because his sun he maketh arise on evil and good, and sendeth rain on just and unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? are not even the tax-collectors the same thing doing? And if ye salute your brethren only, what more than common are ye doing? are not even the nations the same thing doing? Ye, therefore, shall become perfect: as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

Interpreting the passage necessitates paying heed to context. The verse is part of the conclusion to a larger literary unit within the Sermon on the Mount. Further, the conjunction “therefore” connects the exhortation with what has preceded it. The statement of verse 48 is a clarification of what Jesus just stated in verses 43-47, and the conclusion of the larger literary unit.

In Matthew 5:17-21, Jesus stated he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. As the Messiah and Son of God, he was the fulfillment of the Old Testament legislation and revelation, “the Law and the Prophets.” “Fulfill” translates a Greek verb pléroō, which means to “fill to the full, to fill up completely.” What was germinal and partial under the old order is now brought to fruition in the New.

Considering the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, warned that unless one’s “righteousness exceeds more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he or she will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus then gave six examples of how one’s righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees. In each case, he did not simply reaffirm the Law of Moses but, instead, pierced behind the written regulations to discover the heart, the true intent of the Law and, especially, how disciples are to deal with others.
Thus, for example, Jesus extrapolated from the Mosaic prohibition of murder that one should not even harbor anger towards another. Hatred and wrath lead to murder. Instead of just refusing to kill someone, his disciple must seek reconciliation with his brother or sister and, even when necessary, with one’s “enemy” (Matthew 5:21-26).

To have the righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees a follower of Christ must do more than simply abstain from adultery, the minimal requirement of the Mosaic Law. Life in the Kingdom of God demands something more (Matthew 5:27-32).

Even lust for anyone who is not one’s spouse is to be rejected forcefully (“if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee”). Those who seek to enter the Kingdom of Heaven should have no need to resort to sworn oaths for they always speak the plain truth. For his disciple, oaths are superfluous (Matthew 5:33-37).

Jesus turned the law of “eye for an eye” into a command for his disciples to turn the other cheek. He repudiated a popular interpretation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor, which reads, “you shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:18).

To this injunction, some narrowly focused scribes had added the clause, “and hate your enemy.” This logic argued that since the Book of Leviticus explicitly commanded love to fellow Israelites but omitted any mention of Gentiles, therefore, the hatred of enemies was permissible.

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Jesus replied to this wrongheaded interpretation. Since the passage from Leviticus prohibits any act of vengeance, it is plain the Law does not allow hatred for any enemy, whether Gentile or Jew. A man takes vengeance against someone who acts against his interests; however, a disciple is to love his enemies and pray for anyone who abuses him.

God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. This statement is derived from the final clause of Leviticus 19:18, “I am Yahweh.” Giving mercy to both the deserving and the undeserving is fundamental to the nature of the God of Abraham and Moses, the One who revealed Himself as “Yahweh.” If a disciple limits his love to friends and family, how is he any different from a tax collector or Gentile, let alone Scribes and Pharisees?

Showing love to enemies through concrete acts of mercy is how the righteousness of a disciple of Jesus exceeds the “righteousness of the Scribes or Pharisees.” It is how the disciple “fulfills the Law and the Prophets” and emulates the righteousness of God. This is precisely how a follower of Jesus becomes “perfect, just as the Father in heaven is perfect,” and, therefore, demonstrates that he or she is a child of the Father.

Jesus provided the ultimate example of an act of mercy for a friend or foe by laying down his life on the Cross for both. He willingly did this even when we were enemies of God and estranged from Him (Romans 5:10).

There is no place in the Kingdom of God for hatred, violence, retaliation, or any action that harms another human being, fellow Christian or not. Mercy and love are the defining characteristics of the disciple of Jesus and the nature of God.

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