When it comes to goal setting, sports, or building a career, we often hear the phrase “raising the bar.” It usually means setting a standard of higher performance. It can also mean, once having attained a certain goal, setting the next goal higher and more challenging.
As I begin another read-through of the Gospels, I see again Matthew’s quote of Jesus; “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect (5:48).” That statement has dogged me for most of my pilgrimage. It has always seemed to me to be an impossible challenge. How could anyone, wrapped in flesh, plagued by the sin of Adam, and weighed down with things that so easily beset us, ever think that attaining this lofty goal is reasonable? I suspect, in some regards, the fact that it’s not reasonable is in itself part of the challenge as we are almost forced to rely on the spirit of God/Christ to guide us on that path.
Yet, when we look at the context of that statement and keep in mind that it comes not at the end of Jesus’ teaching moment, but simply as an interlude as far as Matthew is concerned, we get little hint of it’s full import. In some regards the statement appears to be there as a shock statment. Something that causes us to be redirected from the topic at hand and look again at what’s in front of us. To the original audience I can imagine a collective gasp as they heard these words. To compound the suspense, Jesus makes no commentary on the statement. He doesn’t give us a clue as to how “being perfect” as the father is perfect is even possible or what it involves. Does it rest on the statements he made just prior that include loving our enemies? Or how the Torah is to now be interpreted in light of its intent and not its absolute letter?
The word “perfect” has a primary meaning of complete and can have a variety of applications. Somehow I feel better about being “complete” as up against being perfect. I can be complete without being perfect. But when set beside the God standard, even my completeness is woefully inadequate. How can I be what I can never be as long as I am being me? I can’t be God. That was part of the issue with Adam and Eve, their desire to know what God knows and know it as God knows it. Certainly I can “raise the bar” in my walk and strive dilegently to reflect the character of the Christ – who I might add was “perfect” in his walk with the father. But that poses simply another problem. Being a follow of Christ and being Christ-like is a challenge that often pushes my heart to dispair. Then again, whenever the bar is raised, the challenge gets just that, challenging.