Christ said: "Be ye perfect." Is this an
To be perfect suggests the idea of progressively striving
towards a character that is not only better but of flawless moral
integrity. Any admission that this is an impossible attainment
demands reconsideration of this "perfection" statement, both in the
light of its context in the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew's
Gospel, and also, very importantly, of its linguistic
We must notice the Greek words used by the Evangelist: "you
shall be perfect [teleioi] just as your Heavenly Father is
perfect [teleios]. Translated, both here and elsewhere in
the Bible, as "perfect", teleios has an interesting Hebrew
equivalent word, tamim - a term that is derived from the
sacrificial cult, and denoted not moral perfection, but wholeness,
completeness, and that which is sound and unblemished in
It is frequently found in Old Testament texts, but the older and
more traditional English translations rarely picked up its original
sense. Examples are: Deuteronomy 18.13, "you shall be perfect
before the Lord you God" (AV), which is more correctly rendered
"you must remain completely loyal" (NRSV); or Job 1.8, that he was
"perfect and upright" (AV), which becomes "he was blameless and
upright" in the NRSV.
This equation of teleios and the Hebrew tamim
by the Greek translators of the Old Testament in the Septuagint
sheds light on Matthew's text. The command to be perfect is to be
blameless and wholeheartedly committed to God's attitude to all: to
become, indeed, imitators of his unconditional love, which seeks
the good of all.
Gerhard Barth, in an important essay on "Matthew's understanding
of the Law", emphasised this point: "the perfection of the
disciples is shown in their undifferentiating observance of the
commandment of love towards friend and foe" (Tradition and
Interpretation in Matthew, by Günther Bornkamm, Gerhard Barth,
and Heinz Joachim Held, SCM Press, 1963, 2nd ed., 1982).
This is a question where the best commentary is a good
translation, a truism that certainly applies to Matthew 5.48, the
sense of which is best captured by the admittedly paraphrastic
version given in the Revised English Bible: "There must be no limit
to your goodness; as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no
bounds." That is something, by the grace of God, to which all
disciples can aim.
(Canon) Terry Palmer
A vicar in rural Suffolk has announced that he "does not
do pastoral care", i.e. that he will not visit the bereaved, etc.
Is he being reasonable, or is pastoral care part of the ministry of
a rural vicar? J. B.
When in Advent should the crib be put up in
church? A. M.
Address for answers and more questions: Out of the Question,
Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta House, 108-114 Golden
Lane, London EC1Y 0TG.
We ask readers not to send us letters for forwarding, and
those giving answers to provide full name, address, and, if
possible, telephone number.