Matthew 5:48 has troubled me most of my life: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It comes at the end of a list where Jesus not only endorses the Jewish laws, but intensifies them. He talks about murder, divorce, adultery, swearing, and revenge. As he lists each one, he talks about the Old Testament answer to it and then tells the Christian to go even farther. Jesus culminates the list a statement about love for enemies, and concludes with “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
All my life I have tried to live up to that statement and failed miserably. No matter how hard I try, I have never been able to achieve perfection for more than a few fleeting seconds. I practice a cello piece for hours and then miss a note in the performance. I write a great sermon or paper but find later that there was something I could have said better. I open myself to others and love them even when they are nasty to me (but I might still think something snarky in my head). I love my husband and always will but there are times I am unreasonable or get irritated. Being perfect has always eluded me.
Yesterday at church, however, Rev. Steve Patton suggested something that had never occurred to me. In talking about this verse, and our striving to be perfect, he mentioned that the adjective used in this verse – τέλειος – has the same root word as the verb – τελείωσε – Jesus uses on the cross when he says “It is finished.” I did a little research and Rev. Patton is correct. The root word in Greek – τέλ – means “reaching the end.” We use it today in our word “telescope.” So the word used in the Bible when Jesus tells us to “be perfect” and when Jesus says “it is finished” is the same. Be perfect, be complete, be finished. Or, as Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
What a relief! What a weight off my shoulders! Jesus isn’t telling me I have to reach some level of perfection in order to please God. He is telling me that I must let God finish his work in my heart. I don’t have to hit every note correctly – I have to let God play through me. It isn’t my perfection that is the key. It is the work that Jesus finished on the cross.
I don’t have to be perfect. But I must allow God to finish the work he started in my life and in my heart. This perfection doesn’t rest on my efforts alone but on my allowing God to work in me. Thanks be to God!