by Luke Wayne
In Matthew 5:48, in the midst of His famous "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus uttered the words:
"Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Mormons have found in these words the promise of their own exaltation. They believe this verse means that they can one day become gods just as the Father in heaven is now a God, by obedience to the "laws and ordinances of the gospel." A careful, examination of the context, however, gives us a very different picture Jesus' meaning.
We should note up front that Jesus' statement is a grammatically a present tense imperative. In other words, His statement is a command that is to be obeyed right now. It is not a promise, nor is it something to be accomplished at some future date. Jesus is telling his disciples to do something immediately and from then on. Whatever He meant by "be perfect," it was something He expected them to do right then and there at the time He commanded it. If He was commanding them to be gods, they failed in this command, and so has everyone since then, including every Mormon citing this passage. If "be perfect" means to be exalted to godhood, we are all sinning by not being gods right now.
However, if we read through the paragraph, we see that there is, in fact, one specific way in which we are being told to be like the Father in heaven. The passage reads:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-48)
If we simply walk through the flow of Jesus' argument, we are not commanded to be like God in the sense of becoming divine beings, but rather we are to imitate Him in love for our enemies. Just as our Father causes the blessings of sun and rain to fall on all men, righteous and wicked, faithful and rebellious alike, in this same way we are to love our enemies and not only those who are kind to us. The "father/son" language here has to do with the imitation of behavior, not with our ascension to His unique, divine state of being. Jesus doesn't just say, "be perfect," but "therefore be perfect." The command to be perfect is directly tied to what came before it. We are to be perfect in the impartiality of our love and kindness, and in this specific way, to imitate God.
This fact becomes even clearer if we look to where the gospel of Luke repeats the same teaching:
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:32-36)
Notice that Luke communicates the same teaching of Jesus, but instead of the word "perfect," he uses the word, "merciful." The point is precisely the same. We are to imitate God specifically in being "kind to ungrateful and evil men." We are to be mercifully loving and compassionate to all, even to those whose behavior toward us seems least deserving. This passage is a call to lowliness of heart, not to grand desires for our own exaltation to godhood. It is a command to be obeyed immediately and at all times, not a future hope or lofty goal awaiting future fulfillment. It is the high standard of Christian love at the center of New Testament morality. We do violence to this precious text if we seek to make it about anything else.