March 25, 2010
Being Perfect & Purposeful Instability
by John UpChurch, Editor, Jesus.org
"Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
Jesus tells His disciples—and ultimately us—to be perfect. The record scratches; the music stops. Perfect? Really?
When God first opened my eyes to the simple-yet-beautiful truth of the Gospel, I stumbled over this part of the Sermon on the Mount. Here I found a wrenching dichotomy: God, who alone is perfect, wants me to be perfect. The two concepts refused to mesh, so I wrote this call to perfection off as hyperbole. Christ also talks about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes and hating family after all; this phrase fit nicely in that category.
But the hyperbole idea kudzued up through the rest of the Sermon. God wouldn't really hold us accountable for our mental lapses or our name-calling. We can't really be expected to smooth conflicts over before going to church and worshiping. The salt and light thing is more like a suggestion. We should simply aim high (the exaggeration) and not be discouraged when we hit low (the impossibility of being perfect).
That reading made my life easier. But the Sermon was never meant to be easy. I just missed the point.
Several years ago, a Christian mentor introduced a concept that challenged my understanding of Matthew 5: purposeful instability (my phrasing, not his). According to his idea, God includes key phrases and stories in Scripture that shatter our "safe" views about being a Christian and push us to grow. In essence, we lock ourselves into patterns and expectations, and God shakes those expectations up.
We see an example of this in John 4 when the disciples, who thought they knew the Savior, returned to find Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman. Their mouths dropped open; their expectations tumbled down. Jesus had used purposeful instability to teach them an important lesson about who could come to Him (i.e., everyone).
Jesus did the same thing later when He urged His disciples to feed the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21). Impossible exaggeration, right? The twelve baskets of leftovers say otherwise.
Christ challenged His disciples throughout His time on earth, befuddling them, rebuking them, and sleeping during their storms. But He always did this to teach them (and us) about following Him.
When I applied purposeful instability to the Sermon on the Mount, my understanding shifted—and, not surprisingly, my refuge in hyperbole melted away. The words of the Sermon command and guide with absolute assurance. Christ moves from the outside world to our inside thoughts and shows that nothing remains hidden—not our actions, not our motives.
Hyperbole as a literary device requires a core of truth. When Christ mentions ripping eyeballs out, He means that we must remove the things in our lives that make us stumble. The exaggeration and image emphasize the seriousness.
However, the Sermon on the Mount and its call to perfection go deeper. This isn't a powerful image meant to evoke an emotional response; it's a sparse—yet powerful—statement of fact. The ramifications are meant to shake us, to push us, to take away the "safe."
Intersecting Faith & Life: Following Jesus means moving, and He gave us the destination. And that's no exaggeration.