20 February 2011

Matthew 5:38-48

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (v. 48)


What a way to start the week. I've burnt the toast, shouted at the dogs and lost my car keys... and Jesus is asking me to be perfect. What's more, this passage appears not to illustrate Christ's humility so much as draw us instead into the niceties of the Jewish legal system.

We find ourselves at the tail-end of a discourse in which Jesus has been examining some of the most hotly-debated tenets of Jewish law and reinterpreting them for a new age. Discussing anger, adultery, divorce and oaths, Jesus doesn't do the revolutionary thing of throwing out the old teachings and setting up a whole new social and legal framework. Instead he envisages a way of life that is arguably even more challenging. He demands that we act in ways that improve upon the requirements of the law.

Jesus has warned that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). His reflections on the law now conclude with the injunction to be perfect "as your heavenly Father is perfect" (verse 48). Speaking as much to the Christian community as to individuals, the Gospel writer shapes Jesus' words to suggest that we should not be lulled into believing that we've made the grade simply because we have kept the rules. The Christian life needs to aspire to the perfect love of God, never towards self-belief or self-love. It's the kind of life that, in Jesus' case, led to being hauled up onto a Roman cross.

Looking back from the vantage point of Golgotha, where Jesus died, these verses are not simply the arguments of a Jewish rabbi's sharp legal mind but rather the groundwork for a way of life that cares nothing for self and all for God. 

To Ponder

What part do rules, spoken and unspoken, play in your life as a disciple?

As Christian communities, are there rules that we maintain that God might not find very important?

What might a life look like that 'cares nothing for self and all for God'? Who do you know that fits that description?

Bible notes author

Laurence Wareing

Laurence Wareing is a Methodist local preacher and works as a freelance writer and media producer. He was editor of the Methodist publication Momentum from 2005 until 2010 and currently edits the website Singing the Faith Plus.