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27 October 2019

Perfect as the Heavenly Father

The Good Samaritan

Christians may be confused or even overwhelmed by the exhortation of Jesus recorded in Matthew 5:48, “therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Perfect” is often taken to mean conformance to some unobtainable standard of Divine righteousness. How can any human ever hope to emulate the perfect righteousness of God?
Interpreting this passage accurately necessitates paying heed to context. Matthew 5:48 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 said that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. As Messiah and Son of God, he is the definitive 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 as some contend 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, in Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus extrapolated from the Mosaic prohibition of murder that one should not even harbor anger toward another. Hatred and wrath lead to murder. Instead of just refusing to kill someone, his disciples must seek reconciliation with their brother or sister, and even, when necessary, with one’s “enemy” (verse 25).
To have a 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 (Matthew 5:27-32). Life in the Kingdom of God demands something higher.
Even lust for anyone who is not one’s spouse is to be forcefully rejected (“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; they are always to speak the plain truth. For a true citizen of the Kingdom, 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 used the logic that since Leviticus explicitly commanded love to fellow Israelites but omitted any mention of Gentiles, hatred for enemies was, therefore, permissible, at least hatred of Israel’s Gentile “enemies.”
Christ’s replied to this wrongheaded and perverted interpretation. Since the passage prohibits any act of vengeance, it is patently obvious that the Law does not allow hatred for any enemy, whether Gentile or Jew. A man takes vengeance against someone who acts against his interests; an “enemy.” Instead, a disciple of Jesus is to love his enemies and pray for the very ones who abuse and persecute him.
Jesus then described how God sends rain on the just and the unjust. He built this statement on 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. If a disciple limits his love to friends and family, how is he any different than tax collectors, Gentiles or the hated Romans, let alone Scribes and Pharisees?
Showing love to even one’s enemies through concrete acts of mercy is how one’s righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes or Pharisees; it is how one “fulfills the Law and the Prophets.” This is how a disciple emulates the righteousness of God; how he or she becomes “perfect just as the Father in heaven is perfect” and, therefore, a child of the Father.
Jesus provided the ultimate act of mercy for the friend and foe by laying down his life on the Cross. 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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