To Be or Not To Be . . . Perfect
Be perfect? Is he serious?
It’s funny how different things can look from just a slightly changed perspective. I remember an incident when I was a fallen-away Catholic college sophomore. Responding to what must have been a Divine prompting, I picked up a copy of the New Testament and started to read. I can’t say why I didn’t first seek out the sacraments or a priest. After all, I was a cradle Catholic, on a (more or less) Catholic campus. I suppose I could blame the post-Vatican II catechesis I received in the ‘70’s.
In any case, I felt the call of the Lord. I began with the first chapter of Mathew’s Gospel. Things were looking pretty good, actually, until I came to the Sermon on the Mount. Here I began to entertain the unpleasant suspicion that a Journey of Faith might entail some Demands (horribile dictu!) upon me. I continued nonetheless until I came to chapter 5, verse 48: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Here was a roadblock. I needed to be perfect? Seriously? This was asking way too much. I put the book down. It would be almost another ten years before I gave serious thought to returning to the practice of the Faith.
It’s Greek To Me
And yet that passage troubled me on and off for a long time. It’s odd because I was studying Latin and Greek, and then went on to teach those languages. It didn’t occur to me to look up the original Greek word that was translated into English as “perfect.” If it had, I might have found Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 5:48 less overwhelming. On the other hand, honestly, at the time I may not have wanted that badly to be saved from my sins.
Eventually, however, it did happen. As an older and (somewhat) wiser man I was explaining to my students about the Latin word perfectus. It had not yet completely taken on its modern connotation of flawlessness or moral perfection: its primary meaning was “finished” or “complete.” That, I explained, is why the verb tense denoting completed action is called the perfect tense. At that point, the proverbial light went off in my head. I went ten years back into the past, to my college dorm room. Was this the word St. Jerome used in translating the Gospel from Greek in the fourth century? If so, what did the Greek word really mean?
“. . . for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
A Little Greek Goes a Long Way
What I found changed my entire perception of the passage. The Latin is indeed perfectus, a translation of the Greek word τέλειοι (teleioi). τέλειοι is related to the noun τέλος (telos), “end.” The adjective τέλειοι signifies something that has reached its proper end, or fulfillment, i.e., is complete. There was more. I also realized, for the first time, that verse 48 is intended as a conclusion to the verses preceding, indicated by the word “therefore” οὖν (oun). When I looked at the passage as a whole, it all began to make more sense:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48)
Just as God loves completely (i.e., everyone), and forgives completely, so must we.
The Road Map To Perfect
Now, that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t calling us to strive for perfection as we understand the word today. Clearly, he is. On a literal level, however, he is telling us to love with a perfect, i.e. complete love, and he gives us a “road map”, if you will, to show us how to get there. That’s still a pretty tall order. At the same time, it seems less hopelessly impossible when we can see that Jesus is proposing concrete actions. He’s not simply commanding us to be, well, perfect.
I don’t want to make it seem that my difficulty with one scripture verse held me back from rejoining the Mystical Body of Christ for a decade. I needed more experience of life, of realizing the futility of trying to do things “my way”, and particularly of the Mystery of the Cross, to soften my heart and lead me back to the Lord. Nevertheless, coming to a new appreciation of Christ’s call to perfection in Matthew 5:48 removed one small but significant barrier on that journey.