I have long been troubled by Jesus’ command in Mt 5:48, “You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine translation, 1941).
The Greek term translated “perfect” is teleios. Most English translations choose to render teleios as “perfect” (so NJB, NAB, NIV, NRSV) though it could be understood as complete, adult, mature. The Greek adjective is related to teleō which means “bring to an end,” and connotes “ not merely to terminate a thing but to carry out a thing to the full.”
When I put this command back in its context in the sermon on the mount, I see it is a command to be loving even to one’s enemies. That is the modus operandi of our heavenly Father, and that’s the way the followers of Christ are to live as well.
The perfection Jesus demands is imitation of the Father’s love. As Scripture scholars note, of all four Gospel writers only Matthew uses the word teleios (5:48 and 19:21). In a parallel passage Luke 6:36 renders Jesus’ saying with “Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful.”
St Thomas Aquinas quotes the sixth century bishop of Reims St Remigius (aka, St Remy) who commented that “the utmost perfection of love cannot go beyond the love of enemies” but he adds that human beings must be aided by the Omnipotent One, and so Jesus is directing his followers to be “like” their Father: “be perfect as your Father is perfect.”
We are to love like the Father, and it is the Father's love working within us, enabling our weak human love, which brings that love to perfection.
My concern about this perfection business stems from two things: 1) my early and naïve interpretation of the insistence of spiritual directors and writers that we must seek perfection (I didn’t understand the distinctions of perfection simpliciter, perfection secundum quid, and instrumental perfection); and 2) my older and I trust wiser realization that most of my heroes fell short of “perfection” on one or more occasions in their lives.
The imperfections of my heroes give me comfort and courage. The Bible is full of examples of heroes and saints who stumbled and fell: Jacob’s deception in stealing his brother’s blessing, David’s sin with Bathsheba, the fictional Jonah who tried to escape God’s plan, Peter who denied Jesus, Thomas who doubted.
The faults of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr, and of many others suggest that even in the effort to do what is right and good, we may fall easily into what is wrong and evil.
In a sermon he preached on several occasions, King advised his congregation that “each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. There is something of a civil war going on within all our lives…Within the best of us there is some evil, and within the worst of us there is some good.”
Merton acknowledged an inner turmoil. He prayed, “Why do I mistrust Your goodness, mistrust everyone but myself, meet every new event on the defensive, squared off against everybody? Dear Lord, I am not living like a monk, like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself –and that I am still afraid of You.”
On a bus trip Day was thinking about the sins and shortcomings of others and suddenly it occurred to her “to remember my own offenses, just as heinous as those of others. If I concern myself with my own sins and lament them, if I remember my own failures and lapses, I will not be resentful of others. This was most cheering and lifted the load of gloom from my mind. It makes one unhappy to judge people and happy to love them.”
It is consoling to accept the notion that God does not love me because I am good; God loves me because God is good. It is a comfort to hear Pope Francis’s response to the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” (He replied, “I am a sinner.”) It is encouraging to realize that the saints in heaven include a lot of people who failed time and time again while on earth.
I think I shall continue to link Jesus’ command to be perfect with Mother Teresa’s insight that God does not expect us to be successful, only faithful.
The devotion we call “The Way of the Cross” has Jesus’ falling three times (not what you would expect from the savior of the world) but each time he fell he got up again. And he wasn’t so prideful that he would refuse help in carrying his cross.
Perfection isn’t measured in sins avoided but in love shown --and accepted.