by Lois Tverberg
You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48
A lot of us struggle with the saying of Jesus’ that we should be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Knowing its context and a little about language can help us have a clearer understanding. The word that most likely came out of Jesus’ mouth was tamim, which in Hebrew means “blameless,” “perfect,” “wholehearted,” or “complete.” The sacrificial lamb of Passover needed to be tamim – without imperfections, completely whole. God told the Israelites to be perfect (tamim) before him in Deut. 18:13, then meaning wholeheartedly committed to him.
So Jesus is saying that we need to be wholehearted, but about what? It is easy to quote this line by itself and then be overwhelmed by its demands of God-like moral perfection. But most likely, Jesus was not giving an undoable command to be entirely without sin. Rather, this line was the conclusion of the preceding teaching that talks about love. Jesus was pointing out that while humans hate their enemies, God shows love to everyone and gives good gifts even to those who hate him. Even the worst sinners are capable of love, even if just for their friends, but it is incomplete. In contrast God loves all humanity – his love is complete in that sense. While our love can never be equal in quantity to God’s, it can be like his in its quality of being extended to even those who don’t deserve it. In that sense we are called to imitate God’s perfect love for the world.