On being (im)perfect

KintsugiSome Bible passages are more neuralgic than others.  I can always tell which ones are currently pressing people’s buttons because I receive a higher than usual number of ‘what do I do about this’ emails, Facebook posts and twitter posts.  Having decided to write an occasional blog it occurred to me that it would be a good place to reflect on some of those passages or issues that cause people the most problems.

One of those passages that always seems to press people’s buttons is Matthew 5.48 ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’.  It is one of those verses that makes any normal person throw up their hands in horror and walk off.  ‘Be perfect’?  Really?  Be without flaws on all occasions?  There must be a few people who rise higher in their chairs and comment smugly ‘I already am perfect’, but most of us regard the command with dismay.  What is more we don’t just have to be ‘normally’ perfect, we have to be perfect ‘as your Father in heaven is perfect’.  Oh great, why don’t we all give up now?

So what does this verse mean?  The first thing to recognise is that this verse sums up Jesus’ teaching on the fulfilling of the law.  Matthew 5.17 onwards sets out the new relationship of Jesus’ disciples to the law.  And it’s no easy task.  Jesus’ expectations of his disciples are of a whole life fulfilling of the law – not just squeaking through by not doing certain things, we are not to think them either.  Jesus new relationship with the law is taxing and far reaching.  So verse 48 sums up all his teaching on this subject and clearly resonates with the Levitical command to be holy as ‘the Lord your God is holy’ (Leviticus 19.2).  Following is no intellectual exercise it requires whole-life transformation.  We are called to mirror the character of God, not merely to do or say the right things.

Ok, Ok, I know I’m not helping!  That just makes it worse not better –now we don’t just have to be perfect, we have to mirror the character of God too.  So before we go further let’s just be clear, this is challenging and it’s meant to be challenging and there is no way round that.  Jesus’ calling to us requires our all and more.

However (that word you’ve all been waiting for!), I don’t think that what Jesus was asking from us is perfection.  He was asking a lot, but not that.  It is interesting that all the translations stick with the word ‘perfect’ for Matthew 5.48.  As someone pointed out to me recently, this is probably a legacy from the Vulgate which translates the Greek word into Latin as ‘perfectus’ (though even that word doesn’t quite have the sense of being without flaws that our English word has).  The Greek word here is teleios and it can mean ‘perfect’ but is more usually used to refer to maturity or wholeness.  If we have a quick look at where this word is used elsewhere in the New Testament you will see what I mean (I’ve put the word that translates teleios in bold so you can see it more easily).

  • Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom (1 Corinthians 2.6)
  • Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind (Philippians 3.15)
  • and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, (James 1.4)

So a possible alternative translation would be ‘Be mature as your Father in heaven is mature’.  The trouble is that’s no better – it  just doesn’t sound right though it is probably closer to what Jesus meant.  Be rounded, be whole, be complete as God is.  God does not say one thing and think another; God does not pretend compassion while really not caring at all.  God is sincere, whole, and wholehearted and we should be too.  That is how we reveal that we are deeply and richly rooted in God’s commands.

But perfection is not what we are aiming for, far from it in fact.  One of my favourite passages from Paul is 2 Corinthians 4.7 which says that ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2Co 4.1)’.  The extraordinary power that Paul has been talking about is God’s glory that shines in the world.  Ben Witherington observes that the Corinthians were well known for their pottery – not just their highly glazed pottery but their pots made of inferior clay that, when fired, cracked and made great light diffusers.  Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians is that our cracked imperfect exteriors (in this instance his in particular) are nothing to be ashamed of — they are vital.  A well glazed pot keeps the light in; only a pot riven with cracks can shine God’s light in the world.  The cracks let the light out.

When I have spoken about this in past people have brought to my attention Kintsugi pottery (an example of which you can see at the top of this post).  Kintsugi pottery is a Japanese practice which mends broken pots with Gold or Silver so that that resulting pot is more beautiful than the one that broke.  It’s a slightly different image but still as powerful.  As Christians we are not called to be perfect.  We are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections, knowing that God’s glory will shine through those cracks into the world around us and that the gold of God’s love will mend our brokenness into something far more beautiful than it was before.

The Christian calling is not a calling to perfection.  It is a calling to remain uncomfortably with our imperfections so that God’s glory can shine all the more powerfully.

None of this solves the challenge of Matthew 5.48.  The more I look at it the more convinced I am that ‘perfect’ is the wrong translation but at the same time I know why no one has tried to change it: nothing else quite works.  Anyone got any ideas?

14 thoughts on “On being (im)perfect”

  1. I have always understood perfection as being fit for purpose, as being how I am supposed to be. That is not necessarily a paradigm around sinlessness as I was made with limitations to be redeemed. It is not an excuse to indulge my sin either as I was made to be repentant and dependent on a Saviour. So I guess for me perfection is being a gratefully aware redeemed sinner who also recognises that call is true of everyone. God’s role is different as the sinless redeemer, He is the other side of that equation, and He is more than good at what He does. The equation balances when we both embrace our roles and are therefor perfect in our different ways.

    • That’s really interesting. Interestinlgy perfect is so often used to refer to being flawless and that is where it is unhelpful, I think. I much prefer perfection as being ‘fit for purpose’ fit to be the person we are called to be!

  2. Dear Paula,

    How much I agree. I prefer “whole” because it is what God is; “wholeness” is not an attribute of G, but his nature. What he is. We are always bedevilled by translation, and I have thought for a long time that we pay too little heed to the truth that Jesus did not think or speak in English. We ourselves do not think or speak in the English that was the channel for William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer and King James’s bishops. We need to translate them as much as we need to translate Thucidides and Plato.
    Jesus cannot have meant that during our lives on earth we were to achieve equality with the Father, much less that we should be cast adrift and punished if we failed to do so. I found the clue in Rowan Williams’s reflection that at Judgment he will not be asked why he wasn’t more like Mother Theresa but why he wasn’t more like Rowan Williams. Then I discovered that he didn’t actually invent this thought; it had been proposed by an 18th century Rabbi – Zusa, I think.

    Enough. You know all that anyway.

  3. Thanks for the offline chat, Paula. Teleios is a word with wide meaning and maybe no single English equivalent captures it all. But I’ll offer ‘You must be people of integrity, as your Father is a God of integrity’ — which then leads into Matt 6 and its warnings against double standards. So 5.48 can be seen as a link or even an introduction to the theme as it’s developed, rather than simply as a conclusion to the preceding passage.

    • As you know I love this – I wonder whether it stands as the bridge between 5 and 6. The many ‘but I say to you’ commands about internal observing of the law maybe the mechanisms by which we ‘live into’ the life we are called to have which then leads into the teaching in chapter 6. What do you think?

  4. Thanks, Paula, I came up against the limits of my own patience today and it made me feel bad. But that smacks of pride, why should I expect to be perfect? Seeing our own flaws gives us a sense of perspective not only necessary to come to Christ at first but to live rightly. As you point out, reading through Matt.5 we know we fall short way before we get to that punchline in v48

    • Yes I agree David, if you didn’t need any other reason for not reading v 48 as perfect then reading through chapter 5 reveals that we cannot be perfect!

  5. Interesting piece, thank you. Thinking further about the above comment on ‘fit for purpose’, re translating teleios. Not having done a great deal of NT Greek, is this related to telos, and words in English with that root such as teleology, and telescope/telegraph/etc? The interwebs tells me that in philosophy teleology is the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve, and tele- is afar. So that makes me think that ‘set apart for a purpose’ would be a reasonable translation. Which is to say, ‘holy’.

    • Really interesting reflection – thank you! Teleios (completeness) is connected to telos (the end or goal). Not quite sure about the ‘set apart’ bit, not least because I don’t think that that is what holy means (esp in the OT) but that would be an entirely different conversation!
      I shall mull on the connection between teleios and holy – thank you!

  6. As a photographer and visual artist the theological insight in your link between an alternative translation of teleios as wholeness/completeness as the person I am created to be (the people we are created to become) and the detail about the Corinthians’ cracked light diffusing pottery acts as a balm upon my Perfectionist soul. I have long sought comfort in the art of Kintsugi and its related visual form Wabi-Sabi, but this brings an extra dimension. Thank you so much.

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