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Matthew 5: Be Complete, Not Perfect
I always begin my Humanities Philosophy course by discussing Matthew 5:43–48. In this provocative passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus delivers the most demanding moral command ever uttered: love your enemy.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

After reading this passage, I share with my students my own struggle to understand this confounding command. When I was a young Christian in my college days, this passage really confused me. How in the world am I supposed to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect? God is infinite; I am finite. God is holy; I am a sinner. God possesses all great-making qualities to the highest possible degree; I am flawed in many ways. Perfection? Seriously?

Some biblical expositors have suggested that Jesus didn’t mean it literally. He was simply pointing out our inability to live up to God’s perfect standard. Others focus on imputed righteousness—the idea that Christ’s perfect sacrifice covers the forgiven believer. Still others use this passage to highlight common grace; that God gives temporal blessings to all. While one can find varying degrees of support for these concepts elsewhere in Scripture, none of these theories captures the full meaning of this passage. I remained puzzled.

That is until I went to seminary, where I learned New Testament Greek. In an advanced exegesis class, I conducted a study of the Greek word teleios—the word that is translated in the above passage as perfect. I concluded that rendering teleios as perfect fails to adequately capture what Jesus had in mind. Not only does it fall short; it actually stirs up a very different meaning altogether—something like getting 100 percent on your philosophy exam!

This, however, was not the message Jesus was conveying to his original audience. Instead of perfect, a more accurate rendering of teleios is complete. Rather than demanding an exacting, legalistic form of works-righteousness, Jesus tells his original agrarian audience that God blesses all people with rain and sun—both necessary ingredients to grow crops and sustain life. If God is not stingy with his blessings and favor, then we must follow his lead. We must cultivate a love for the righteous and unrighteous, family and enemy, in-group as well as out-group. Therefore, we should strive to communicate in word and deed a Christian story that does justice to the radically inclusive nature of God’s love. While this does not mean that all people will necessarily experience reconciliation with God, it does mean that God desires the ultimate flourishing of every single person.

After establishing the meaning of Matthew 5:43–48, we move into a three-part assignment that will weave throughout the course. The first part of the assignment is for every student to identify their “other,” the kind of person they find particularly difficult to understand. For this assignment, I tell them to focus on someone who is on the other side of a moral/religious/social issue, not just someone with a personality trait or habit that rubs them the wrong way. For instance, this could be someone who holds a different perspective on religion, gender equality, abortion, immigration, global warming, race relations, or what constitutes patriotism.

The second part of this Matthew 5 assignment is to go online and take a ninety-minute self-guided assessment called “The Open Mind App.” Produced by Heterodox Academy, this interactive activity explains the three principles of moral psychology. The third part of the Matthew 5 assignment comes at the end of the semester after students have been exposed to ten action steps (treble tactics) designed to increase the “treble” of compassion without sacrificing the “bass” of biblical conviction. This final assignment is to write an “Understanding My Other” paper that explains how they will begin to try to understand and build a bridge to the person they identified in the first part of the Matthew 5 assignment.

Sophia’s Choice

Sophia came to me after class one day and asked if we could talk for a few minutes. “What’s on your mind,” I asked? She told me that she was having a problem with another student. The student in question was white, male, politically conservative, intelligent, and motivated to challenge what he perceived to be growing political correctness on our campus. As someone who had been raised in a diverse environment, Sophia struggled with his ideology. Even more, she was deeply bothered by social media posts targeted at “social justice warriors.” She was coming to me today because some of her friends said this student respected me as a professor. When she first heard this, she thought to herself, “That doesn’t sound like the Dr. Burson I’ve seen in class.” Nevertheless, she wondered if I could help her better understand this fellow student who had slowly, but surely become her “other.”

By this stage in the class, we had covered several of the treble tactics, so I said, “If you really want to understand where he is coming from I think you should invite him to lunch or coffee and just listen to his story. Don’t say anything, just listen with curiosity. My guess is if you treat him with dignity, he will return the favor. I know it’s going to be super hard, but that’s my advice.” Sophia wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of humbly listening to someone who had deeply offended many of her peers, but she would think it over.

Over the next few weeks, I didn’t hear anything from Sophia. Then the pandemic hit and we scrambled to transition the course online for the final six weeks of the semester. As the class came to a close, it was time for students to submit their “Understanding My Other” papers—the third and final part in the Matthew 5 assignment. I was especially curious to read Sophia’s paper, given our conversation earlier in the semester. I wasn’t disappointed. With her permission, I am pleased to share a portion of it with you:

At the beginning of the semester, I described my “other” as males who objectify women. However, during the school year, as I kept meeting new people, I realized another “other” that has affected me are people whose ideology revolve around white supremacy. Growing up in a diverse area, then moving into a culture like IWU [Indiana Wesleyan University], which is primarily white, has been a significant shift for me. I am very passionate about helping those who are marginalized, whether that is by their race, sex, or social class. During this second semester, I’ve had a hard time dealing with   people who make small-minded assumptions about people of different races and      socioeconomic backgrounds based on stereotypes. These conversations that I was having with others developed anger within me. It got to the point where I was disgusted by being white and started to white shame others. This class, however, has helped me through the treble tactics to have civil conversations with others who may have different ideological perspectives. And with those conversations, it has helped me not group other white people from IWU based on stereotypes and claiming they are ignorant.

These conversations have definitely toned down my pride and made me understand people for who they are. With that, they have shown me that most people’s intentions aren’t to marginalize or group people. I have developed a lot more compassion toward people who make assumptions of other ethnicities. During the Treble Tactic Nine: Focus on Reconciliation activity, we watched a Ted Talk by Daryl Davis. He showed by his example of reaching out to the KKK leader what it means to have true compassion on another. His approach to developing an understanding of his “other” motivated me to do the same.

Here are five takeaways from Sophia’s paper:

  1. Sophia chose to go a different route with her “other.” Instead of perpetuating the destructive cancel culture, she met one on one and listened to his story with respect and humility.
  2. Sophia chose to understand her “other” on his terms, not hers. And she did so without compromising her own social justice convictions.
  3. In the final section of her paper, Sophia shifted from calling this student her other to her friend. Choosing to listen to the other student’s story softened Sophia’s attitude, which mellowed her conversation partner, as well.
  4. Because she went into the conversation with an open mind, Sophia was able to identify some of her friend’s active moral intuitions and locate his sacred values. By doing so, she gained greater insight into his moral vision.
  5. By the end of the encounter, the fellow student had moved from evil enemy to human being with a life narrative behind his brash ideological persona. This shift in perspective enabled Sophia to empathize with her new friend, who has been bullied and bashed on social media.

Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek and she definitely lived up to her name in this exercise. Time and again, I am inspired by the creativity and courage displayed by so many students in their quest to practice the Jesus ethic. Loving our enemy is the most challenging moral command ever uttered. But when we choose to humanize rather than demonize, it’s possible to expand the tribe and move from enemy to friend.

Scott R. Burson

Scott R. Burson is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University. This blog is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, All about the Bass: Searching for Treble in the Midst of a Pounding Culture War (Cascade, June 2021).