Final Thoughts: being perfect

This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. We have been considering Jesus’ lessons that continue to make clear the personal responsibility of freely entering into the covenant relationship with God and to answer the question, what does it mean to truly be God’s people? At the end Jesus commands: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.The ‘greater righteousness’ demanded in v. 20 has been illustrated in vv. 21ff., and is now summed up (therefore) in one all-embracing demand. The demand is that disciples (you is emphatic, in contrast with the tax collectors and Gentiles of vv. 46–47 and the scribes and Pharisees of v. 20) must be perfect (teleioi). This is the ‘more’ required in v. 47. Cf. 19:20–21, where again teleios (its only other use in Matthew) indicates God’s requirement which goes beyond legal conformity. (There too Lev. 19:18 is superseded by this more radical demand.) Teleios is wider than moral perfection: it indicates ‘completeness’, ‘wholeness’ (cf. Paul’s use of it for the spiritually ‘mature’ in 1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Phil. 3:15), a life totally integrated to the will of God, and thus reflecting his character. It is probably derived here from the LXX of Deuteronomy 18:13, which, with the repeated formula of Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26 (‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’), is echoed in Jesus’ words. The conformity to the character of God, to which Israel was called in their role as God’s special people (see especially Lev. 20:26), is now affirmed as the goal of the disciples of Jesus. It is an ideal set before all disciples, not a special status of those who claim to have achieved ‘sinless perfection’ in this life; neither here nor in 19:20–21 is there a suggestion of a two-level ethic for the ordinary disciple and the ‘perfect’.

Be perfect, telios, the Greek word which speaks of wholeness, a completeness, a certain end point, goal or destiny that is ours. “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our destiny, our divine calling – a project for this lifetime. A project that with the grace of God is ours in the here and now – and forever.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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