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"Be perfect" -- a horrible translation, and even more horrible theology

This Sunday, we hear a couple more "tough saying" of Jesus in a continuation of Jesus' "sermon on the mount."  

Unfortunately, the Gospel lesson concludes with our hearing Jesus saying -- seeming to say -- "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."   

The reason I say that's unfortunate (and that Jesus is only seeming to say "be perfect") is that "be perfect" is a terrible translation -- one of the worst in the whole English Bible -- of what was being said. Biblical scholars point out that the word Jesus is using here (in Hebrew, tam) means "be whole" (or "be wholesome"), or "be mature," or "be complete."   

We tend to think, however, of "perfection" as "without blemish" or "completely free from faults or defects," such as when we say a student a "perfect score" or when a pitcher pitches a "perfect game." 

That's why "be perfect" is such a terrible translation of what Jesus was saying.  What Jesus was referring to (and what Paul is referring to when he uses the word teleio) has to do with God's completeness or wholeness and so an accurate translation would be more like "be mature" or "do things, make choices, that move you toward wholeness, completeness." 

Because this tree is mature and complete, it could be considered perfect in the biblical sense, even though with all its bad pruning and storm damage, it is far from "perfect." As a kind of loose analogy, here's hoping that brings some comfort to you.       
Once again, Eugene Peterson gets it right in his paraphrase "The Message" --  

"In a word, what I'm saying is, 'grow up.' You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

Doing that -- living out our God-identity, living graciously and generously toward others -- is difficult, and takes a lifetime of practice and patience and grace. 

But (unlike "be perfect") at least with God's help it's possible.  


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