“Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” This one sentence seems to summarize Jesus' teaching on the goal of human life. It is placed at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, the three chapters in the Book of Matthew that summarize the major teachings of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.
Jesus places before us the ultimate goal of life – be perfect as God. How can there be a greater goal than this? All the short-term goals should serve as stepping stones to attain this ultimate goal. Jesus here places the ultimate standard for morality – perfection which is nothing less than the perfection of God. Can there be a greater standard than this?
Why should people accept this as their ultimate goal in life? Jesus argues that God is father to all the people in the world, and it is natural for children to accept their father as their role model.
What are the signs of perfection? The one most remarkable sign of perfection in Jesus’ view is absolute love. God loves all people irrespective of how they treat God. God loves even those who hate Him in return. Jesus challenges us to attain that kind of perfection – the ability to love even those who hate us.
The other religious teachers of Jesus’ time couldn’t ask people to be like God because the God they presented couldn’t be a role model to people. A king in a kingdom is usually above the rules in that kingdom. The rules that apply to the ordinary citizens wouldn’t be applicable to a king. Thus a king has the freedom to disregard the rules, and be and do whatever that pleases him. The Pharisees at Jesus’ time presented God as a king, who demands absolute obedience from the people. People have no option but to obey God. If someone chooses to disobey, he/she will have to face the wrath of God. How can such a God be a role-model to people?
Moreover, the Pharisees at Jesus’ time presented God as having partiality. God exhibits special affection for a group of people – the chosen people of God. They gained this special place of privilege not because of their merit but because of the faith of their forefather, Abraham. This belief might have given them a sense of worth. However, this belief did more harm than good. It encouraged communalism. It made them look down upon others. Also it made them irresponsible. This is what made John the Baptist say, “Don’t say in your mind, ‘We have Abraham as our father’.”
Although John, the Baptist, was against the communalism of the Pharisees, he himself couldn’t ask people to accept God as their role-model. He compared God to a farmer, and people to the plants in God’s farm. Plants do not have an option but to bear fruit. If they do not, they will be cut down and burned. The fruit we need to bear in our lives are good deeds. However, John, the Baptist, couldn’t set a criterion to distinguish between what deed is good and what is not. In his view, God’s morality is radically different from ours. God has the freedom to burn the evil-doers, but we don’t.
This is the context in which Jesus steps in and presents a new analogy of God: as father. Others might have used this analogy, but it is Jesus who worked out its implications fully.
Jesus uses the analogy of a family to speak of the relationship between God and human beings. The prevalent analogy in Jesus’ time was that of a kingdom, in which God is like a king, and the people in the world are his subjects. Jesus perhaps accepted both analogies, but in a different way. God is a father to all the human beings, but a king to all the nonhuman beings. Human beings have the freedom to disobey God, but the nonhuman beings do not have that freedom. The father in the story of the prodigal son is a father to his sons, but a master to his servants. The sons in that story have the freedom to disobey and leave their father, but the servants do not have that freedom.
Using this analogy, Jesus could easily distinguish between good and evil. Jesus placed love as the criterion. God is perfect, and He loves even those who hate Him. Be perfect as God, your heavenly father, and love those who hate you. Any action that springs out of love is good; anything that springs out of the lack of love is evil. That is why Jesus summarized the ten commandments into the two laws of love: Love your God wholeheartedly, and love your fellow beings as you love yourselves.
Jesus raises the humanity to the level of God. The moral standards for God and human beings are not different any more. And he places before us the ultimate goal in life as well as the ultimate standard of morality.
In the Garden of Eden, man is tempted by the snake to become like God. The temptation is to disobey God and to take the place of God. Jesus also asks us to be like God. But this is not a temptation to rebel against God, but a call for obedience. When you accept someone as a role model, you don't rebel against him, but accept him/her as a hero, and follow and obey willingly.
The Greek fathers spoke of theosis as our goal. Theos is God, and theosis is becoming God-like. This is the same as what Jesus asked us to do-- accept God as our role model, and strive to attain the perfection of God.