The American journalist and activist Dorothy Day once wrote, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” If we think about this statement for any amount of time we can’t help but begin to understand the core of who God is. God is love and compassion.
Matthew 5:48 reads, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As a young Christian I struggled over this text. How in the world could I be perfect like my heavenly Father? How could I ever do everything right all the time,k not only in actions, but also in my thoughts?
If I had been in a bit more mature in my faith I would have understood that Bible texts should be taken in context with what was written before and after the verse. In the case of Matthew 5:48 the discussion in verses 43 through 47 is about the love. “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
The word perfect in the Bible can and does mean complete or finished. Jesus was made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10; 5:8-9). He completed or fulfilled God’s plan for Him as our Savior by suffering for us. It is also important to know that perfect can also mean mature or grown up. In Philippians 3:15 the Apostle Paul speaks to “as many as be perfect,” (KJV), but the New King James Version translates the text “as many as are mature”. The Bible I usually use, The Revised Standard Version, also translates the perfect as mature.
If we were to dig down to the very core of God we would see that all He does and all He accomplishes for us is based on love and compassion. 1 John 4:7, 8 reads, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” John goes on in verse 10, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins.”
If the core of God is love and that love expressed itself on Calvary’s cross that our sins could be forgiven and forgotten, then for us to be perfect is to be conduits of God’s love to others. Look at the context of Matthew 5:48. The discussion revolves around the idea that we are to go beyond just loving our family and friends, because even non-believers do that. Instead, we are to love all people. Jesus on the Cross prayed for the Father to forgive his tormentors and Stephen, as he was being stoned, prayed for those that were to about to take his life. Paul prayed for the jailor while locked up in prison and thousands of martyrs have gone to their destruction with words of forgiveness on their lips for their enemies.
In Luke 6:27-35 we have Jesus famous discourse on the law of love. These verses have a lot of similar concepts and wording as the passage in Matthew 5:43-47 except this time Jesus ends by saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
So after the discourse on love in Matthew 5:43-47 Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now in Luke 6:27-35 after a very similar discourse on the law of love Jesus tells the crowds, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” It is obvious from 1 John 4:7, 8 (in fact the whole book) that God is love and that love was manifested in compassion for humanity at the cross. If we are to follow Jesus and take the name Christian we also must become perfect or merciful in our own sphere of influence.
The Christian walk of living a compassionate and caring life is not always easy. The old sinful nature, Satan and our own desires jump up quite often to distract us and mislead us. We stumble over things that we think we should long have overcome or put behind us on our journey, but there they are again, tripping us up. Temper, frustration, anger and a host of other emotions can twist us around into doing things we don’t want to do, and not doing things we want to do. (Romans 7) But remember, God is love. When we allow the Spirit to lift us up, dust us off and put us back on our journey, we have learned a new lesson on compassion and love. I believe that draws us closer to Jesus.
Remember that verse I mentioned earlier in Hebrews 2; “For it was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (v.10) The maturity or completeness of all that Jesus did for us was presented through His suffering death at the cross. Our suffering, through our failures and stumbling along, drives us into the arms of Jesus where we find love and compassion in the form of forgiveness.
Perfection isn’t about our actions, but is about our relationship with God and with others. We are to love God with all our heart and our fellow man as we love ourselves. Our Christian journey isn’t about focusing on sinless perfection of character, but upon being men and women of compassion and love for others. Perfectionism always looks inward and causes us to spend our time worrying about ourselves. It is a very selfish view of life, while compassion and love drive us into the world to minister and care for the broken and hurting. A Christian who has learned to be merciful because she has fallen so many times at the foot of the cross will live a life where sin is not a major issue because the focus of her life is on Christ and not the old habits and attitudes.
What would our homes look like if we showed mercy? How would our children respond if we were men and women of mercy? What about the neighbor that is driving us crazy or the relative that is always interfering, or co-worker that causes nothing but trouble? I believe when we read Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-35 we have the answer for dealing with these people; we are to love them. It’s true, we really only do love God as much as the person we love the least.