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.”