Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 5:43-48; Acts 7:17-38; Psalm 14; Genesis 31
Today’s passages highlight humanity’s fundamental moral problem. Jesus calls on people to be perfect, as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). But no one is, not even one person does good (Psalm 14). Genesis 31 shows that ancient heroes like Jacob and Rachel were far from perfect. God sent Moses and others to help Israel, but they were rejected by their own people (Acts 7:37-39). They were to love their neighbours as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), but failed to love even their own people.
Jesus highlights how some had distorted the command to love their neighbours, claiming it meant they should hate their enemies. God had declared that he hates evil and also those who do wrong (Psalm 5:4-5). The psalmist declares that he hates those who hate God, counting them as enemies (Psalm 139:21-22). As time went on, Israelites came to view all Gentiles as enemies of God and therefore people they could and should hate. We see here the sort of thinking that continues to use religious differences to incite hatred and violence.
Jesus brings to light how this thinking misses God’s intended message. It misses the heart issue. The Old Testament does not command people to hate their enemies, and in places calls for enemies to be helped (Exodus 23:4-5). Jesus takes it further and calls on his disciples to love their enemies and to pray for those abusing them (Matthew 5:44). We are to love the sinner even while we hate the sin.
Jesus provides a number of reasons why this is the right course of action. By doing do, we are acting as God would act: we are being true children of his (Matthew 5:45). Being made in the image of God gives us the responsibility to act as God would act. As Jesus’ life demonstrated supremely, God loves his enemies even to the point of dying for us (Romans 6:6-8). We see God’s provision for all people in nature: sun and rain fall on the good and the bad (Matthew 5:45). Besides, it is easy to love those who love us and are part of ‘our people’ (Matthew 5:45). The challenge is to love those who differ from us; to love the unlovely. While God hates sin, his love seeks reconciliation with sinners.
As Jesus has done repeatedly in this section, he raises the moral bar in two ways. One is by showing that our attempts to lower the bar fail. If we only have to love neighbours, we think we can do that. Jesus shows that such attempts miss the heart issue. We fail even there. At the same time, Jesus shows that God has set the bar at perfection. We are to have the character of God, but none of us does. We all fall short of God’s standard and, in a way, we are as much his enemy as everyone else (Romans 3:23).
“Be perfect,” Jesus declares. How can we be perfect given all that Jesus has just said? The Greek verb is in the future tense. If Jesus expected his disciples to be perfect now, he would have used the present tense. A more literal translation would be “you shall be perfect.” The goal is to become perfect like our heavenly Father. This is the same as the Old Testament goal to be blameless before God (Deuteronomy 18:13). Only Jesus has attained this, but it is our ultimate destiny in Christ. Meanwhile, as disciples of Christ, we should more accurately reflect his image and likeness in our lives. For that, our hearts must first be transformed which happens when we accept God’s love and forgiveness and become new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Afterwards, as God’s love flows through us, our characters should change towards perfection. Even Paul did not attain this goal in his lifetime (Philippians 3:12). In pursuing perfection, we remain dependant on God’s power to do anything properly and show loving patience towards others who, like us, fail to achieve perfection.