Skip to main content

"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.  


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Let's Unpack One Trump Tweet on Refugees

No one can  -- and I certainly don't want to try -- to unpack every tweet the person currently holding the office of President of the United States sends out.

No one has the time to respond to every one of his tweets on just one issue. Although I wish I had the time on the issue of the Executive Orders recently issued in regard to refugees.

But every so often I feel I MUST respond to at least SOME of those tweets, lest I grow accustomed to them as normal. And I refuse to normalize the abnormal. 

Take one of Saturday's tweets, for example: in response to Judge Robart's temporarily stopping an Executive Orders, there was this: 



“What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” 

Let's unpack: 

"What is our country coming to..." 
Does that lament sound familiar? Ask yourself: who often says it, where do you hear it from the most? Is it a positive, hopeful line of thinking? I wil…

The Beatitudes, Lady Liberty, and Refugees

A sermon preached January 29, 2017
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the p…