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“Be Perfect…”

    In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, or at least according to the New International Version of the Bible that’s what he said.

    It sounds pretty clear, right?  It’s a simple command or exhortation.  And to moral virtue.  Do no wrong.  You are to act perfectly in every aspect of your behaviour. Without a single fault or omission.  Other translations are similar…

    • “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect”
      (New Living Translation)
    • “But you must always act like your Father in heaven”
      (Contemporary English Version)
    • “You must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect”
      (Good News Translation)

    Such a command is not just a big ask for anyone, but actually poses quite a serious issue to those who suffer from perfectionism.  If it’s not enough for their internalised voices and inner critic to constantly judge them for every tiny failure to meet impossible standards, they’ve now got Jesus along with their heavenly Father ganging up on them too!  And nobody needs that.

    Other translations, however, are available and they start to reveal substantial nuances present or possible in this phrase (as with many other passages).  This is where a tool like the Biblehub website comes in handy for understanding the original text of Scripture (Greek in the New Testament and Hebrew in the Old Testament) and the various ways in which a given passage can be translated (because translation always involves interpretation).

    For this verse (Matt 5:48), there are two things that emerge from referring to the original Greek.  Firstly, the command/imperative to “be” (esesthe) is in the future tense. This is brought out by the alternative translations offered by the Berean Literal Bible, New King James Version and New American Standard Bible which all render the phrase as…

    You shall be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect

    These translations therefore better convey the emphasis on what shall become of you – what you shall be (in future), rather than what you are to do now.

    Secondly, it’s clear that the English word “perfect” is not necessarily the only choice to translate the original Greek “teleioi” (an adjective related to the noun “telos”) and it completely misses an important sense of the word.

    The telos of an acorn is to become an oak tree, and a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  These are their natural destinations if unhindered and provided with the right conditions of nourishment, shelter etc. This is what they are to become. Their destiny.

    As per the notes from Biblehub “teleioi” has the sense of something reaching its principal end, aim, purpose, completion, fullness, maturity.  So an alternative translation for “teleioi” which would better covey this sense would perhaps be “brought to completion” (rather than “perfect”).

    Given these two points, it’s quite possible to hear Jesus differently. Not commanding his disciples to live a faultless life of moral perfection but rather exhorting them, or even promising them that “you shall be brought to completion” – the fulfilment of who they are. Quite a different reading, and one that does not unhelpfully conspire with any persecuting voice of inner perfectionism.

    On a final note, I also find it interesting that the same teleological sense is prominent in the schema set out by the psychotherapist C. G. Jung.  In the process of providing assistance to his patients, Jung’s focus was less retrospective & forensic than Freud’s (i.e. not focussing so much on the roots of each patient’s psychological distress) but rather more on how they could move forward and who their Self was beckoning them to become on their journey towards wholeness.

    Jung’s name for this path/process was “Individuation” and I do wonder whether perhaps Jesus was referring to the same thing in Matthew 5:48 when he said “you shall be brought to completion”, rather than providing an injunction to moral perfection(ism)?