The Perfect Father
We admit that we are not perfect–and cannot really hope to be perfect. So why does Jesus say to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect?
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus’ words about perfection conclude his contrasts (in Mt. 5:21-48) between what his disciples have heard before (from the scribes in the synagogues) and what Jesus now commands. The last contrast is about one of the great commands from the law of Moses: love your neighbor (5:43); and Jesus adds another command from the law of Moses: hate your enemy.
The first phrase, “love your neighbor,” quotes Leviticus 19:18. The neighbor of Lev. 19:17-18 is defined as “your brother,” or “the sons of your own people.” So this law, like the rest of the law of Moses, applies to those in the kingdom of Israel; those outside, the Gentiles, are not neighbors or brothers since they are not “the sons of your own people.”
The second phrase, “but hate your enemy,” can also be found in the law of Moses (though not quoted word for word). A few laws of Moses do speak of doing good to enemies (as in Exodus 23:4-5), and not oppressing strangers (Gentiles) in their land (23:9). But Ex. 23:23-24 says when Israel reaches the promised land, populated by Canaanites and other Gentiles, God will destroy those idolatrous Gentiles; Israel is to utterly overthrow them. These are the enemies God will drive out of their land; Israel is to drive them out, so they will not cause Israel to sin (Ex. 23:27-33).
Similarly, the love command of Lev. 19:18 is followed later by commands in Lev. 26:7-8 about Israel chasing (Gentile) enemies (in the promised land), who will fall before them by the sword. Deuteronomy 20:1-20 is a whole chapter about rules for waging “holy war” against (Gentile) enemies of Israel. Jewish scribes (rabbis) during Jesus’ time were also eager to free the kingdom of Israel from Gentile influence, including the Romans whose world empire extended into Israel.
Jesus’ righteousness, however, again fulfills the law (of Moses) on a new level: he commands his disciples to love their enemies. Disciples who patiently love their enemies and pray for them will be true children of their heavenly Father. For their Father gives sunshine and rain to both the evil and the good (Mt. 5:44-45).
So when Jesus concludes by saying, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect, this perfection is summarizing the preceding context of loving everyone, even enemies. Those who only show love to certain ones are not perfect as God is perfect. God’s perfect love is not partial when beneficial rain and sun are given to both the righteous and unrighteous. Likewise, God’s children must not be partial; they should show love both to their brothers or sisters and their enemies. If they love (pray for and do good to) even those who persecute them, their love will be perfect, like that of their Father.
In contrast, loyal “children” (citizens) of earthly “fathers” (rulers) who hate and kill their national or ethnic enemies have chosen the partial (imperfect) righteousness of their kingdom of earth. Jesus’ (perfect) new command for the kingdom of heaven rules out those (partial) traditional commands of the kingdoms of earth–including those of the kingdom of Israel.