Perfection or Reconciliation?
How do you make sense of Jesus’ demand for perfection in Matthew 5:17-48? He begins this passage with the statement, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20). He ends the passage with an even more extreme demand: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48).
When I am tempted to water this down and think that Jesus is merely exaggerating, that we don’t really have to be as perfect as God, I recall a set of statistics I stumbled upon one time:
If 99.9% is good enough, then:
- 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next 60 minutes.
- 268,500 defective tires will be shipped this year.
- 291 pacemaker operations will be performed incorrectly this year.
- 18,322 pieces of mail will be mishandled in the next hour.
- 12 babies will be given to the wrong parents every day.
I can see and appreciate Jesus’ concern here: Heaven will not be heaven if you and I succeed in getting rid of 99.9% of the evil inside of us and sneak into heaven even .1% of our evil.
Seen from this vantage point, what Jesus says in Matthew 5:20 and Matthew 5:48 makes sense, but where does that leave us? I have come nowhere close to reaching even 99.9% of moral goodness. And Jesus makes it even tougher by stressing that His standard of perfection applies not just to my deeds but to the intentions of my heart, telling us that if we call a person a name we have committed murder in our hearts (verse 22) and that if we look lustfully at a woman we have committed adultery in our hearts (verse 28).
In light of this, what hope is there for me (or for you) to get into heaven?
If it was left to us, there would be no hope. But missionary pilot Bob Griffin points us to something beyond just ourselves. He reports that when Wycliffe Bible Translators were working with the Huaroni people in Ecuador, translating the Bible into their language, they got stuck on the word “reconciled.” They were trying to express, in the Huaroni language, the Biblical message that God reconciled the world to Himself through Jesus, but they could not find a word that would fit. Unable to solve the problem, one of the translators set aside his work and went out on a short expedition with some of the Huaroni men. As they hiked through the jungle, they came upon a narrow, but deep, ravine. The missionary looked left and right, searching the length of the ravine, and he saw no place to cross it. He looked down into the ravine, and he saw no way to climb down one side and back up the other. He assessed the distance across the ravine, and he knew that none of them would be able to leap across the chasm. As far as he could see, they had reached the end of the road. The Huaroni, however, took out their machetes and cut down a large tree so that it fell over the ravine, permitting them all to cross safely. The translator, listening intently to these men, discovered that they had a word for “tree across the ravine.” This seemed to be the best way to express the meaning of the word “reconciled.”
Here is the hope for us: If it was left to us, we would never be able to get across the ravine from earth to heaven. None of us are close to being even 99.9% good. In Matthew 5:17-48 Jesus makes it clear that this alternative will never work. But if crossing the ravine from earth to heaven is accomplished by Someone else laying down a bridge for us, we have hope. Ephesians 2:8-9 spells it out: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The ravine between us and God can be crossed not because of our goodness but because Jesus laid down a bridge when He laid down His life for us.