Thoughts Along the Way

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  –Matthew 5:48. 

“Perfection is the enemy of good,” said Voltaire, although he was rephrasing an older saying: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress,” and Tolstoy said  “If you look for perfection you’ll never be content.” Salvador Dali said there’s no point in being afraid of perfection because you’ll never find it.  “If people reach perfection they vanish, you know,” wrote T.H. White in The Once and Future King.

Well, Voltaire, Churchill, Tolstoy and Dali were right.  You can keep trying to make something flawless, and since you don’t know what perfection really is or what it looks like—after all, nobody has ever actually seen it or experienced it—you may end up ruining something that was perfectly good enough.  You can re-write and over-edit your writing until the words lose their meaning.  You can agonize over finding the perfect words for your speech and end up alienating your audience because you sound like you’re from another era or stratum of society.  You can sand and polish your woodwork until the grain disappears.  You can keep adding details to your painting and end up overcomplicating what might have otherwise been a masterpiece.  

If you’re trying to make yourself perfect, it would be good to take T.H. White’s words of caution to heart.  You can try to live a life that is so moral, intelligent and upright in every way that you make the you that everybody loves—you know, the you that has an slightly wicked sense of humor, the you that’s just a little unorthodox, the you whose heart sometimes overrules the head—if you try too hard to be perfect, you can end up making the genuine you disappear into the shell of a pious mannequin.  Or into craziness.  Because there is no perfect.

We all know that perfection is not possible.  And yet, here is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount telling us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  So is Jesus commanding us to do the impossible?

Probably not.  We probably have the wrong word…or at least the wrong understanding of it.

Some scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew may have originally been written in Hebrew.  If so, then the word that appears in English as “perfect” would have been either tamam or kalal;  Hebrew has two different words that might have been used.  Tamam is a word that connotes wholeness, soundness, or integrity.  It is a word that is usually used to convey ethical significance.  So if tamam was the word used, we could hear what Jesus is saying as “Be whole, be mature, be honest as your heavenly Father is whole, mature and honest.”  Kalal, on the other hand, is a word meant to convey an aesthetic sense of completeness, elegance, natural grace or beauty.  “Be elegant as your heavenly Father is elegant.”  

In Greek, the language of most of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel, the word our English Bibles translate as “perfect” is teloi which comes from teleios or telos.  The overall meaning is wholeness and completeness.  It’s a word that’s used to describe something or someone that is mature, a grown person, an adult.  It can also refer to someone who is fully initiated into a religious community of faith or who is fully consecrated to a faithful way of life. Sometimes it is used to describe someone who is completely genuine.  “Be genuine, therefore, as your heavenly Father is genuine.”

Author and scholar Chaim Benorah points out that Jesus was probably speaking Aramaic.  In Aramaic, the word he used would have been gmeera.  Gmeera describes someone who has understanding, someone who has reached maturity, an adult.  So we could read the instructions of Jesus as something like “Have understanding of the Way, the way God understands the Way” or “Be an adult, the way God is an adult.”  I think this meaning may be what Eugene Peterson had in mind when he translated this verse in The Message this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

David Lose has pointed out that there is an important word in this “be perfect” passage that we tend to ignore.  Therefore.  That little “therefore” should make us back up a bit and look at what Jesus was saying before we got stuck on “be perfect.”  He was telling his disciples—telling us—to practice nonviolence, to love our enemies, and to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.  He was giving instructions on adulting in the kin-dom.  Be a grown up as your heavenly Father is a grownup.

Perfect.  It’s just a word, but it’s a crazy-making word, and it reminds us that we need to think about the words we’re using and how we use them.  Telling someone they need to be perfect could set them on the path to life-long neurosis. Inviting someone to imitate God’s maturity and wholeness, though, is another pathway altogether.  After all, as it says in the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, “By loving and blessing all people, you will be walking in the footsteps of your Father from the spirit-world above, who is perfect in all his ways.”

The Gospel According to Steinbeck


“We don’t take a trip, a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

We parked our motorcycles at the curb in front of the John Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas and paused a moment to get our bearings. We had meant to stop at the Steinbeck Museum for our afternoon break, but Pastor Dave, the only one of us three motorcycling pastors who had his phone mounted on his handlebars and Bluetooth connected to a com unit in his helmet had entered a little bit of misinformation into the guidance system. So there we were at the library. Not at the museum. “Let’s walk,” said Dave. “It’s only a few blocks and it will be good to stretch our legs.” So, carrying our helmets, jackets draped over our arms, off we went. For a few blocks. Very. Long. Blocks. And more than a few. Or maybe it just felt like that because our footwear, ideal for long miles on motorcycle foot pegs was a little less well-adapted for city hiking. And yet, because we were on foot we saw the town differently than if we had simply motored through it.  The buildings stood out, each proclaiming both its individuality and the timeless, simple elegance of a bygone era.

 “Try to understand [each other]. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a [person] well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” –John Steinbeck

If you ever find yourself near Salinas with a little extra time on your hands, the Steinbeck Museum is worth every minute  you can spare. I confess that I have not read much of his work beyond what was required in high school. I have seen a few old movies adapted from his works or written by him for the screen, but it has been so long ago that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, just how much impact he had on this country. To walk through settings that evoke both the scenes of his life and work as well as the decades and social conditions of the time while surrounded by quotes from his writing and well-selected video clips of film and stage scenes from his pen was a powerful and moving experience. I learned long ago that the Word of God can come to us in unexpected ways and through unexpected voices. I was reminded once again that one persistent, prophetic person whose eyes are wide open, who is really thinking about what they see and why they are seeing it, a voice who is not afraid to name both the injustice and the beauty of the world can make a difference, can nudge the slow tide of transformation in the direction of God’s vision for us all.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” –East of Eden

Life is a journey. That little chestnut is such a cliché that we tend to file it under the pile of overdue bills in the unsorted stacks of “things we’ll deal with later” in the cluttered corners of our souls. Cliché or not, it’s still true, and sometimes it takes an actual journey to remind us of that truth. We make choices or we don’t—which is also a choice. We pay attention or we don’t. We follow the map or just follow the road we’re on because we’re not sure where we’re going anyway. And even if we’re very careful and sure of our route the truth remains: “We don’t take a trip. A trip takes us.” Stuff happens. People say things. People do things. We respond. Sometimes our responses are good and appropriate. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes we stand firmly in the life and love and light of Christ. Sometimes in our own shadows.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” –East of Eden

 “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:38, except that he probably didn’t intend to say that at all, at least not in the way we tend to hear it. Walter Wink in his book Naming the Powers points out that in both Hebrew and Aramaic there is no such word as “perfect” as in flawless. Even the Greek word which gets translated as “perfect” was only very rarely used to mean flawless. In all three languages the word that gets translated as “perfect” really means “whole” or “complete.” Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole. Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete. Be the person God made you to be. Have integrity, be consistent, be good, be generous and loving, be forgiving, but don’t delude yourself that you can ever be flawless…at least not in this life. Doesn’t that make more sense? How much evil has been perpetrated by people trying to obtain or enforce some kind of externally defined “perfection?” How many people have twisted their own souls out of shape by trying to be flawless in a world where flawlessness is a self-righteous trap?

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –East of Eden