I loved Mr Rogers as a child, and I always appreciated it when he would look into the camera with his gentle smile and soft voice and tell the audience: “I like you just the way you are”. It’s easy in our cynical culture to dismiss such words, or give them a simple meaning, but I think Mr Rogers was actually being quite profound. What if a child in his audience was a bad kid? What if he was a liar, or a thief, or a bully? Surely Mr Rogers had thought of that. Would he still have said “I like you just the way you are” to them? Yes I think he would, because what really are you? You are a human being, and that does not change no matter what you do. Mr Rogers loves you just the way you are, not the way you behave.
It may sound surprising, but when Jesus Christ said the words in the title, “therefore be perfect”, he was actually encouraging his followers to view people in the same way that Mr Rogers did. The full verse goes like this “Therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What does Jesus mean, how could we ever be perfect like God? Jesus explains exactly what he means in the verses just before that when he said that we should treat all people with love, no matter what they do. He puts it like this: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise upon the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you only love those who love you, what good is that?” and he concludes “Therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matthew 5:43-48)
What an incredible lesson this is because when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and persecutors what he is really teaching us is that God also loves them. God does not just love those who love him back. God does not have two standards of love, one for us to follow, and then a different one for himself. He tell us to love our enemies exactly because that’s what he does. Jesus calls that type of love “perfect”, and he encourages all his followers to do likewise.
Perfect love is certainly no easy assignment, we have our own sins to wrestle with, as well as this hate filled world around us. It would be easy to throw up our hands and conclude that “perfect” love means that nothing matters, nothing is sinful. You’re okay, I’m okay, it’s all good. However, that would be just as much of a mistake as it would be to hate our enemies.
We must not confuse permissiveness with love. Love is not the opposite of judgement. I am sure that Mr Rogers never approved of children telling lies, or of children being bullies, even though he said “I like you just the way you are” to every child he ever met. Neither does God approve of sin even though he loves all people, whether they are good or bad. In order to keep this balance between these two opposites we must learn to differentiate between the human being, the one we are commanded to love perfectly, and the wrong actions that no follower of Christ could ever approve.
How can we keep this balance? How can we love a person despite their bad behavior? By being forgiving. If we have love for people, perfect love, then we will not be able to withhold our forgiveness of them, just as St Peter wrote “Love covers over a multitude of sin” (1 Peter 4:8).