(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on February 17, 2017)
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, KJV).
Uh, excuse me? The words of Jesus above say, “be perfect.” He doesn’t mean that, does he? Is this one of those passages we are not supposed to take literally? Be perfect? “That’s impossible!” some of you might say. He must mean to strive towards perfection. Or maybe he knows that it’s impossible and that’s why we need Jesus to close the gap between us and perfection. Well, that sounds nice, but it’s not what the text says. Be perfect.
I can’t help but notice that this is also the message from the culture, particularly in our advertising. Go to the gas station or book store and look at the magazine rack. Look at all of the flawless bodies of women and men with curves or chiseled muscles. Look at the air-brushed figures splashes across the covers. Look at those who are clad in the latest fashion, flaunting wealth, power, success… perfection. Go scroll down your Facebook news feed. Notice how everyone’s picture is taken from the best angle. Everyone looks great. All the family pictures are of smiles and joy. Perfection. Of course, we know that this can’t be true, but it the images flood our eyes nonetheless. Watch a film or a television show. Perfect people. Hollywood-gorgeous. Fake, of course, but the image is perfection. And this is the message to you: be perfect (like all of these people). It’s not a conscious, explicit message. But it is there. And it is designed for a specific purpose: to make us feel terrible about ourselves. It is designed to make little boys and little girls to look at themselves and conclude that there is something wrong with them. Why? So that we will participate in the idolatry of consumerism. The whole point is to make us spend all kinds of our hard-earned money on products, services and experiences that will bring us every closer to perfection. Of course, this is the impossible standard of perfection called flawlessness and achievement of the materialistic culture’s values.
Have you ever wondered where this definition of perfection comes from? You probably take it for granted: perfection is flawlessness, the absence of problems, struggles, defects as compared to the ideal standard. Well, it has an origin. The birth of this comes from Plato, a philosopher in ancient Greece. Plato believed that there was some invisible heavenly realm where perfect forms existed. In other words, in this realm of forms, there was the “perfect” chair and table and human form. And all of us and all of our objects on earth were imperfect copies of the perfect form. We were like distorted or cloudy mirrors reflecting a defective version of the perfect forms in heaven. And this philosophy has permeated our Western culture up to the present day.
Well, here’s the good news: Jesus was not a Platonist. Jesus was most certainly not referring to Plato’s realm of forms when he said “be perfect.” Don’t believe me? Well, the actually word in the original language the Gospel of Matthew was written is teleios. And that word has nothing to do with conformity to a flawless form of the singular ideal standard. Jesus certainly did not mean to reflect like a mirror the impossible, air-brushed image of a supermodel or a body-builder on the cover of the gas station magazine. The word teleios has a very specific meaning. It means “to fulfill a purpose or goal; to mature.” In fact, a better metaphor than reflecting an ideal standard like a flawless mirror is that of a seed. Think of a seed. A seed has a purpose. It has a goal. If a seed is planted in good soil (or even bad soil, to some degree), and if it is given water and sunlight, it will grow. And it will achieve the purpose that it was given. And although all seeds of an olive tree look similar, each one is painstakingly unique. When Jesus says, “Be perfect,” he means that we are called to fulfill the unique purpose, to grow up, to mature into the kind of tree that we are. Don’t try to be something you weren’t created to be, and don’t stunt your growth.
And what type of thing are we called to be? Well, any animal matures to be like its parents. Any seed is destined to grow into the image of the plant that created the seed. We are called children of God. And the image that is placed upon each and every one of us is the very image of God. We are called to be just like God is just, merciful like God is merciful, scandalously generous with love, grace and forgiveness like the God who created us. And Jesus is the example of what that looks like. Stop conforming to the culture of selfishness, violence and fear, Jesus says to us. Be exactly what God intended you to be: a spitting image of the one who created you, with all the rights and responsibilities of being a child of the King.