In a recent class, as an introduction to a book study on Messy Spirituality (written by Mike Yaconelli) we talked about the Biblical call to holiness, the reality of sin (and its power) and what freedom means in light of the delicate balance between the two.
In Matthew chapter five, in verse 48, Jesus says "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
If your like me, at first glance you might think "well, that's impossible, so I guess I should just give up now." Teachers have answered that sentiment with statements like "Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, which means we don't have to take his statement literally." Another, more extreme teaching is "yes, Jesus demands perfection, we should take it literally and seek to be perfect." Neither are at the heart of what Jesus was saying. We need to look at two very important aspects of the context to understand Jesus' words.
First, we have to look at the word translated as "perfect." The word in greek is teleos which does not mean moral flawlessness. It means fully grown, mature or complete. Elsewhere, teleos is used to speak of fruit maturing (Luke 8:14) and a fully realized unity of believers (John 17:23). Think in terms of complete or full grown as opposed to partial. Jesus is talking about being mature, complete and fully grown in our love for people. To "be perfect as God is perfect" means to love as God loves: impartially, completely, fully and without necessity of that love being reciprocated.
Second, this statement is made in the context of what mature love should look like in relationships with those that it is typically difficult to love. Jesus has just said to love your enemies. He has also asked rhetorical questions about how easy it is to love those that love you pointing to the truth that Godly love is more than just typical easy love.
Jesus was talking to mostly Jewish people each with a different status in their culture. The type of love he's talking about was not being shown either from those in power or those who were at the mercy of those in power. However, if both parties loved the way Jesus is telling them to love, then the great chasm that existed because of a broken system could've been closed and God's love would've been the new system.
What does this mean for us?
Jesus does not expect us to be morally flawless, but he does expect us to love him and love others in a way that is reminiscent of how he loves us. So, be free from thinking you have to live a perfect life, but know that you're calling to perfection (or should I say to impartial, counter-conditional Godly love)is a much higher and often a much more demanding request than that of moral perfection.
The good news: we aren't expected to love people perfectly on our own. The Holy Spirit lives in those of us that are new creations in Christ and that's why Jesus can call us to love the same way he does.