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What does Jesus mean when he says 'Be perfect...'?

Author: Paula Gooder, 22 September 2016

Ever scratched your head over Jesus' call to 'Be perfect' in Matthew 5.48? You're not alone. Paula Gooder considers how we can understand this verse – with the help of some Japanese pottery.

Some Bible passages hit a nerve more than others. I can always tell which ones are currently pressing people’s buttons because I receive a higher than usual number of ‘What do I do about this?’ emails, Facebook posts and Twitter posts.

One of those passages is Matthew 5.48, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. It is one of those verses that makes any normal person throw up their hands in horror and walk off. 

‘Be perfect’? Really? Be without flaws on all occasions?

There must be a few people who rise higher in their chairs and comment smugly ‘I already am perfect’, but most of us regard the command with dismay. What is more we don’t just have to be ‘normally’ perfect, we have to be perfect ‘as your Father in heaven is perfect’. Oh great, why don’t we all give up now?

Jesus is summarising his teaching on the law

So what does this verse mean? The first thing to recognise is that this verse sums up Jesus’ teaching on the fulfilling of the law. Matthew 5.17 onwards sets out the new relationship of Jesus’ disciples to the law. And it’s no easy task. Jesus’ expectations of his disciples are of a whole life fulfilling of the law – not just squeaking through by not doing certain things, we are not to think them either.

Jesus' new relationship with the law is taxing and far reaching. So verse 48 sums up all  teaching on this subject and clearly resonates with the Levitical command to be holy as ‘the Lord your God is holy’ (Leviticus 19.2). Following is no intellectual exercise it requires whole-life transformation. We are called to mirror the character of God, not merely to do or say the right things.

Okay, okay, I know I’m not helping! That just makes it worse not better – now we don’t just have to be perfect, we have to mirror the character of God too. So before we go further let’s just be clear, this is challenging and it’s meant to be challenging and there is no way round that. Jesus’ calling to us requires our all and more.

Jesus wasn't asking for perfection

However (that word you’ve all been waiting for!), I don’t think that what Jesus was asking from us is perfection. He was asking a lot, but not that. It is interesting that all the translations stick with the word ‘perfect’ for Matthew 5.48.

As someone pointed out to me recently, this is probably a legacy from the Vulgate which translates the Greek word into Latin as ‘perfectus’ (though even that word doesn’t quite have the sense of being without flaws that our English word has).

Be rounded, be whole, be complete as God is

The Greek word here is teleios and it can mean ‘perfect’ but is more usually used to refer to maturity or wholeness. If we have a quick look at where this word is used elsewhere in the New Testament you will see what I mean (I’ve put the word that translates teleios in bold so you can see it more easily).

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom (1 Corinthians 2.6)

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind (Philippians 3.15)

and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete (James 1.4)

So a possible alternative translation would be ‘Be mature as your Father in heaven is mature’. The trouble is that’s no better – it  just doesn’t sound right though it is probably closer to what Jesus meant. Be rounded, be whole, be complete as God is. God does not say one thing and think another; God does not pretend compassion while really not caring at all. God is sincere, whole, and wholehearted and we should be too. That is how we reveal that we are deeply and richly rooted in God’s commands.

There is power in imperfection

But perfection is not what we are aiming for, far from it in fact. One of my favourite passages from Paul is 2 Corinthians 4.7 which says that ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.'

The extraordinary power that Paul has been talking about is God’s glory that shines in the world. Ben Witherington observes that the Corinthians were well known for their pottery – not just their highly glazed pottery but their pots made of inferior clay that, when fired, cracked and made great light diffusers.

Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians is that our cracked imperfect exteriors (in this instance his in particular) are nothing to be ashamed of — they are vital. A well glazed pot keeps the light in; only a pot riven with cracks can shine God’s light in the world. The cracks let the light out.

When I have spoken about this in past people have brought to my attention Kintsugi pottery (an example of which you can see at the top of this post). Kintsugi pottery is a Japanese practice which mends broken pots with gold or silver so that that resulting pot is more beautiful than the one that broke.

We are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections

It’s a slightly different image but still as powerful. As Christians we are not called to be perfect. We are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections, knowing that God’s glory will shine through those cracks into the world around us and that the gold of God’s love will mend our brokenness into something far more beautiful than it was before.

The Christian calling is not a calling to perfection. It is a calling to remain uncomfortably with our imperfections so that God’s glory can shine all the more powerfully.

None of this solves the challenge of Matthew 5.48. The more I look at it the more convinced I am that ‘perfect’ is the wrong translation but at the same time I know why no one has tried to change it: nothing else quite works. Anyone got any ideas?

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