The Impossible Challenge: Matthew 5:38-48

Focus Passage: Matthew 5:38-48 (NCV)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, don’t stand up against an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also. 40 If someone wants to sue you in court and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles. 42 If a person asks you for something, give it to him. Don’t refuse to give to someone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you. 45 If you do this, you will be true children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on good people and on evil people, and he sends rain to those who do right and to those who do wrong. 46 If you love only the people who love you, you will get no reward. Even the tax collectors do that. 47 And if you are nice only to your friends, you are no better than other people. Even those who don’t know God are nice to their friends. 48 So you must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Read Matthew 5:38-48 in context and/or in other translations on BibleGateway.com!

Of all the challenging words Jesus ever spoke, one of the most challenging in the entire gospels comes at the close of this passage. After talking about loving our enemies and going the extra mile, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying something that sounds completely impossible: “So you must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (v. 48)

If there is only one thing I know, it is that God is perfect and I am not. While I constantly strive to do my best, there is no way that I can ever reach perfection, because at the very least, my past is far from perfect.

However, what if we are missing something from this idea when pulling this verse and looking at it on its own? On its own, this verse sounds impossible.

But something does stand out in Jesus’ words in this paragraph’s worth of teaching. In the entire paragraph that contains Jesus’ thoughts on this, the only words that are past tense are at the beginning, when Jesus draws His audience’s attention onto something they have heard taught in the past. Aside from that, everything is either present tense or a promise for the future.

This is important for all of us. If the entire context of this statement is the present tense, then we must move past our “past” mistakes and focus on the decisions we make today.

However, while it is great to put the past in the past, another challenge we have in Jesus’ statement here is the question: What does it mean to be perfect in God’s eyes?

To help answer that question, we should draw from another gospel writer’s record of this event. In Luke’s gospel, he includes a similar closing phrase, but with a different, more tangible concept in place of perfection. In Luke’s gospel, we read “Show mercy, just as your Father shows mercy.” (Luke 6:36)

One of the most appealing characteristics of God is that He is a merciful God. When we have made mistake after mistake, God is willing to show us mercy and forgive us. What if the mark of perfection in God’s eyes is not knowing it all, seeing it all, or controlling it all? What if the mark of perfection is having a love in our hearts that extends mercy to others?

Jesus’ teaching in this passage centers on the idea that God gives gifts to those who follow Him and those who don’t. God doesn’t selectively bless based on whether an individual is His follower. While following God’s ideal plan for our lives leads to happiness, peace, and contentment, these are simply the results of the steps He has laid out. God extends mercy to everyone, and this mercy gives each person the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they will turn their lives towards Him.

God has called us to be perfect like He is perfect, which is demonstrated by loving others like He loves them, and showing mercy towards both the people we agree with and those we don’t.

This thought was inspired by studying the Walking With Jesus "Reflective Bible Study" package. To discover insights like this in your own study time, click here and give Reflective Bible Study a try today!

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