The idea of “being perfect” may not immediately resonate in a culture in which a “perfect score” on a test or a “perfect game” in baseball means something without any possible flaw. That this verse seems to sum up weeks of exhortation from Jesus – and, this year, lead us directly into Lent – may lead us to think God asks the impossible.
But the Greek word used here really has more of a sense of being complete. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is translated as “mature” or “full-grown.” Imagine if we read here: “So grow up, just like your Heavenly Father is grown-up.” Obviously the suggestion is not that God was once immature and reckless, and has now become merciful. Our first reading and psalm should be enough to banish that notion. God’s mercy and desire for reconciliation go way back! But the image of becoming grown-up surely is meant for us as followers of Christ. Christ’s followers will surpass the law not simply in the ways highlighted last week – via interior dispositions that “complete” the law – but also in the ways highlighted this week – via a love of neighbor that extends the idea of neighbor to its “complete” sense.
What is depicted as “grown-up” here really challenges what we think of us grown-up. Often enough in our world, we take the experience of “growing up” to mean that we shed our naive sense of the world and instead realize something else: the way the world works. The way the world works is: People fight. Some people win, some people lose. Everyone has to look out for themselves. You have to protect yourself. Don’t let people take advantage of you. In other words, the (“grown-up”) way the world works is: an eye for an eye, love your friends, hate your enemies. Watch out.
Here, St. Paul’s words provide an unexpected resonance:
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God
For certainly these ideas of loving your enemy or offering no resistance seem utterly foolish in our world of politics, in the battlefields of Eastern Europe, in the economic strife of the age. In fact, they are foolish – if there is no heavenly Father Who exemplifies what our mature human agency should look like. When we realize that God sends rain on the crops of the just and the unjust, we may learn to love like that. Or we may recognize how in need we are of conversion that approach to being grown-up – in which case, Lent’s arrival cannot come a minute too soon. Perhaps we can reflect on how Lent can be a time when we do things like go the extra mile or turn the other cheek in relation to a perceived enemy. We can give up on the anger, envy, and pride that makes us hate our enemies. And we can think about it as shedding our childishness in order to grow up into the full stature of Christ.