April 21, 2017 Column
Let’s Be Perfect Together
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
One of the hardest sayings of Jesus comes at the end of Matthew 5, in the middle of the so–called Sermon on the Mount—“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What do we do with something like this?
Atheists point to a saying like this as another piece of evidence that Christianity is nothing more than a fable and a recipe for failure. After all, who can be perfect?
And when Christians read this saying and others like it, they generally have one of two kinds of reactions.
The first reaction is to assume that Jesus didn’t really expect us to do this and similar kinds of things. Jesus was just reminding us of our inability to satisfy God’s commands, so that we might turn to Jesus for forgiveness and grace.
The second reaction is just the opposite—to try really, really hard to live by Jesus’ words and, inevitably, fail. In this case, we assume that Jesus really did mean it, and so we urge people to rid themselves (the conservative version) or to rid society (the liberal version) of sin. The problem with this is that we assume that we are sufficient to do it ourselves, and we end up not really needing God’s grace. All we need is God’s instruction and encouragement.
I think both of these reactions are misinterpretations of what Jesus actually said. The problem arises that we run into one of the perennial difficulties with translation. The New Testament was written in ancient Greek (and not very high quality Greek, at that). The word we translate as “perfect” is the Greek word “teleios” which comes from the root “telos”.
Normally, when we think about what it means for human beings to be perfect, we think in moral categories. That is, Jesus is urging us to be the best person you can be, to be moral and holy. That kind of thing.
But that’s not what the word “teleios” means. In Greek, it means to reach one’s intended outcome.
Let me give an example. Thomas Merton, the 20th century mystic and contemplative, wrote some reflections about creation. “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying God. It ‘consents’, so to speak, to God’s creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
In this reflection, Merton essentially says that the tree is being perfect.
Some other examples: the “telos” of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target; the telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches; the telos of a car (despite all the advertisers’ claims to the contrary) is get me from point A to point B.
So when Jesus tells us, “Be teleois …”, we might translate this passage more loosely to read, “Be the person and community God created you to be.” Eugene Peterson comes very close to this sense when he translates this verse as follows in The Message: “Live out your God–created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
When we read it this way, Jesus’ words are not so much a command. They are a promise. God sees more in you than you do. God is inviting you to join God to create a different kind of world.
Jesus calls this world the “kingdom of God”—where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and where hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King Jr captured the logic of Jesus’ words well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I want to go even further and say that even if you are an atheist, you can get behind this kind of thinking. Gandhi was not a Christian, but he advocated non–violent resistance because “nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence and forgiveness is more manly than punishment.”
So, in the spirit of being and doing what we were made to be and do, let me suggest that, in fact, we can all be “teleios”, perfect, together. There is much in us that can reach out in love and compassion to heal a broken world.
This word of Jesus, even if you are not a follower of Jesus, still calls the best out of us. It beckons us to a pilgrimage in which we walk together in peace and grace.