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‘Be ye perfect’ — impossible?

by
29 November 2013

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Christ said: "Be ye perfect." Is this an impossibility?

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 background.

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 character.

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
Magor, Monmouthshire


Your questions

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.

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