Therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Our cultural habit, reinforced by greeting cards, of taking single sentences from the Bible as mottos nearly insures our ignorance of what they mean when they are put back together. In Matthew 5:48 a “therefore” signals that what precedes the verse will tell us what the verse is talking about, but it has been easy to take the verse alone because, after all, we know what “perfect” means and so, we think, we know what Jesus means when he tells us to be perfect. And thereby we make a total hash of understanding the verse.
Our understanding of “perfect” is mathematical. Ivory Soap used to be advertised as “9944/100% pure,” which I suppose means it could contain 0.56% stuff other than what it was supposed to contain. This is an example of the hedging of language in advertising, just like “made with” rather than “made from,” since “made from” would imply that whatever pleasant substance is then named is what you’re buying and not just a barely present ingredient among many others you might not want to think about, such as the “pure aloe oil” that comes in your shampoo’s legally required fine-print ingredients list after quite a string of long-named outcomes of mad science.
Advertising language, along with our understanding of that word “perfect,” is part of our language’s servitude to science and law. In both contexts, exceptions disprove rules. If I assert “X is Y,” then a drop of non-Y in the vast ocean of X makes me a perjurer or at least a scientist with an incorrect hypothesis.
“Perfect” and “pure” like all words, need a place in a larger discourse to communicate anything. And in Matthew 5:48, the issue is love, not legal or mathematical exactness. It doesn’t mean that Jesus wants me to be as good as God. If he did want it, well, sorry, Jesus: it’s not going to happen. No sense asking for the impossible. Jesus is, rather, talking about my love for other people, which is far too slippery a substance to be measured exactly. Jesus means that I should not leave anyone out.
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 thereby prove to be children of your heavenly Father, since he makes his sun rise on bad people as well as good and sends rain to both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love people who love you, what reward do you get? Don’t even tax collectors do as much? And if you greet only your relatives, what more are you doing than anyone else? Don’t even Gentiles do that much? Therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Perfect love is love that leaves no one out, that takes no account of bad feelings, the past, or even potential violence. It is in this way like the indiscriminate nature of sunshine and rain. It is not like the odd hail in the movie version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, which stayed within specific property lines. It does not choose whom to love but loves the person in front of me, wherever I am.
It would be easy, and it’s often been done, to name examples. But surely you know who your enemies are. Who hates you? Who wants to do you harm? TV news wants, desperately it sometimes seems, to give you answers to those questions. The difficulty has sometimes been that we don’t want to acknowledge our enemies, and we Americans have been aided in this by our country’s near-perfect success in keeping its wars outside our borders for the last century and a half. But that is not so much the case now because we have enemies who can handily cross the borders, who seem to care nothing about the proprieties of diplomatic enmity, and who can be rather blunt about their hate.
But those kind of enemies are still often too abstract. We should love them, and we certainly have collective opportunities to do so, but we won’t find the collective will to do so until we experience a collective conversion far beyond anything our history would lead us to expect. I am limited in my imagination regarding ways we might work toward that conversion, but surely it would include stepping back from possible futures and other abstractions to our day-to-day.
Søren Kierkegaard lived before television news broadcasts and so can offer us a helpful perspective. For him the “neighbor” whom I am to love is the next person I see, and in person, not on TV. Cupid’s arrow, if I’m not confusing mythologies, meant that the target had to love the next person they saw, usually with whatever qualifications were necessary to keep the love heterosexual. But Kierkegaard is talking about something quite different, because the God of the Bible tells you to love, not compelling you with arrows but appealing to your free obedience, and this love he commands is not felt (“romantic”) but effective. It is not passion but care.
“Perfection” is in this case not even 9944/100% pure but can, in fact be quite messy. The easiest way to stay “pure,” as we sometimes think of the word, would be to love no one. Another way might be to love “all humanity,” but that, too, is not what Jesus’ words or any other part of the Bible calls for. “All humanity” is too easy to love, not at all like my neighbor, my enemy, or my uncle. “All humanity” is an abstraction, but those other people are quite real and just as disagreeable or dangerous as any other person.
So there is a realism about neighbor-love. It sees that there are human beings, but it cannot tell the difference between neighbors and enemies. It looks to see what “the next person you see” needs. It may not be perfect in perceiving need perfectly, in distinguishing between help and enabling, or in meeting need completely, but it is perfect in being toward that “next person,” whoever that is.
“Neighbor” as “the next person you see” is from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, vol. I, chapter II.B, “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor.”