Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
We use the word “perfect” in all sorts of ways, don’t we? Sometimes we mean “excellent,” or “great,” or “Just what I wanted or needed.”
On the other hand, we are often quick to say, “nobody’s perfect,” or “only God is perfect.” And we know instinctively that is right. Perfection may be something for which we strive, but only the most arrogant among us would ever say that they have arrived at the destination of perfection.
Yet here it is: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If only Jesus had said “Strive for perfection, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But he simply said “be.” What do we do with that, other than ignore it?
Well, it turns out that the Greek word here translated as “perfect” is just as slippery in meaning as the English word is. Telios (τέλιος) is sometimes translated as “whole,” as doing the “whole” will of God, or “unblemished,” as in the kind of sacrifice God requires, or “undivided or unrestricted” in regards to God’s love, and, yes, it can mean “perfect.”
Now wouldn’t it be interesting if a modern-day translation translated verse 48 as
Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole.”
What would that mean?
To try to answer that question, let’s look at the context, because this is one of those verses of Scripture that can be misunderstood or even dangerous if you take it out of its context.
We are in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier Jesus has said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (5:17) Ah, right there, the Greek concept of fulfill and the Greek concept of perfect have something to do with each other, and actually that statement and the “Be perfect…” statement are bookends to his argument.
Having said that he came not to abolish the law, Jesus goes on to give examples of what he means by “fulfilling” it. Each one starts,
You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…
He does this six times; we only have the last two this morning, but it’s enough with which to work, in fact, let’s just take the last one.
You have heard it was said, “You shall love your neighbors and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
What is normal behavior for human beings, for you and for me? Love those who love me, or at least for whom I have respect, and have as little to do as possible with those who trouble me. We would not want to go so far as to say “hate them,” but Jesus is here to tell us that anything less than love is hate.
Most of the people Jesus was talking to at the time, and, I dare say, most of the people I am talking to here at this time (including myself) would have agreed with the proposition that God loves those who love him and hates evildoers, you know, the really bad ones.
No, Jesus says, you are quite wrong. Turn what you think about God upside-down. God does not treat the good and the evil differently. And he wants us to see that to fulfill God’s desire for us, we have to love our enemies as ourselves and seek the good of those who persecute us.
That, Jesus says, is how God is perfect, by loving in an undivided, unrestricted way.
That is hard for us, extraordinarily hard. It is neither our instinct or, by and large, how we have been nurtured. In truth, when I contemplate it, I cannot see how it even works.
But “how it works” is clearly not important to God. How did loving his enemies as much as his friends work for Jesus? It got him taken advantage of, betrayed, and murdered by his enemies.
It is the rather bizarre Christian story that the perfection of God is shown in the failure of God. And we cannot get away from this by quickly jumping to the resurrection. The resurrection does not undo this bizarre upside-down perfection of God, it, to borrow a word from Jesus, fulfills it. Remember the risen Christ eternally bears the wounds of his humiliation, so that the failure can never be forgotten.
St. Paul remembers a time when Jesus himself spoke to him this simple truth. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 12,
…but [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
So what does this mean for our daily living?
First of all, for perfectionists like me, I have to let the testimony of Jesus completely undo my sense of how God and the world works. I have to resist the mighty temptation to seek God only in my victories or successes, but to be ready to be found by God in my losses and failures, and, in the end, it is thus being found that is important.
Second of all, our awareness of the dangers of human notions of perfection, might open up in us the chance to listen to those who differ from us. In our current political climate, there may be nothing so important. But it is equally true for our daily relationships, particularly with people who rub us the wrong way, or who do or think things that we find troubling or even repugnant.
We are encouraged in this world to think of those with whom we differ as foes whose dangerous ideas must be defeated. And they must be defeated because only we know the way that is perfect, or at least great.
The way of God, however, which we are called to walk, is for our enemies to be the object of our love, which I think at the very least means to stay in relationship with them, because the love of God is stronger than any political ideology, or, indeed, anything that separates us one from another.
In the end, being perfect like God is perfect, is being whole as God is whole, committed to the wholeness in which we are all held in spite of our sin, our differences of opinion, our failures, or anything else that seems to separate us one from another in this world.