Sometimes Jesus seems to make impossible demands of his disciples.  A prime example is found in Matthew’s gospel” (5: 48) “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”

One scripture scholar calls that passage one of the most difficult of the New Testament.  On the face of it the passage sounds like a commandment that we cannot possibly fulfill.

We need to remember the gospels are not self-explanatory.  There is always the need  to interpret.  If we take gospel passages literally and fail to penetrate the meaning of the words we will have problems.

The key to solving the difficulty posed by that passage is determining what the word “perfect” means. It is helpful to ask what meaning the word had for a Jew of Matthew’s time. It is quite different from the meaning of the English word, which is defined as “entirely without fault or defect.”  For a Jew of Matthew’s time it could not mean absolutely flawless.  Only God is perfect in that sense and to think a human person could aspire to such perfection would be presumptuous, if not blasphemous.

Analyzing the word Matthew used reveals that it has nothing to do with what might be called abstract or philosophical perfection.  Rather, perfection was taken in a functional sense.   A thing is perfect to the extent to which it realizes the purpose for which it is made. Thus the passage seems to be an exhortation to fulfill the purpose for which we are made.  Our purpose is simply put in the old catechism It is to know him, love him, and serve him in this world, and be happy with him in the next.

Thus, the passage represents an impossible demand in the modern Western sense but something possible in the ancient Jewish sense.

C.S. Lewis has a helpful suggestion in this regard.  In Mere Christianity, he pointed out that we need not become discouraged by what seems to be God’s demand for perfection, even as we recognize our present failures and the weakness of our attempts to be good.  The reason is our God is a forgiving God.  Each time we fail God is ready to forgive. It’s not the failing that is the worst.  It’s staying on the ground.

We believe God is always ready to give us the grace to stand up and continue our journey toward him. God knows that our unaided efforts are not going to bring us to perfection. The crucial thing is to keep trying, to remain open to God’s grace.