Except for the most misapplied words of Jesus, “You shall not judge”, no words are more abused, misused, or misunderstood than, “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is.” How can we rightly understand these words when ‘perfect’ is used against Christians as a curse word, an insult, a taunt as in: “O you’re so perfect.” “Less Miss perfect thinks she has no sins.” Who doesn’t hear these words of Jesus, “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” and respond, “Yeah, right!”
This isn’t a mistranslation. 60 out of the 62 English translations translate ‘perfect’, but they’re wrong. They’re wrong if they take ‘perfect’ to refer to being without sin. Holiness churches do this, and they either lower God’s standards or individuals despair of meeting them. I find Lutherans also lowering standards. For example: “Naturally, a Christian’s duty to his family, community, or country may compel him to resist rather than to submit to injustice and insult” (Buls, Sermon Notes, Series A, 41). Even Luther does: “Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help. …He is not saying that we should give and lend to everybody but ‘to him who begs from us,’ that is, to the one who really needs it” (LW, 21, 117). One more: By telling us it’s the right cheek that means a backhand as most people are right handed. A backhanded slap is an insult not an assault. Regarding perfection as a moral concept leaves commentators between the rock of taking Jesus’ words in their literal sense and the hard place of reducing them to a figure (Gibbs, I, 302, Fn. 7).
We hear ‘perfect’ and we think sinless, morally pure. But even the English word ‘perfect’ can refer to complete. A husband says, “She’s perfect.” A wife says, “He completes me”, and we know what that means. Only The Message paraphrase and the Orthodox Jewish Bible don’t have ‘perfect’. The first has ‘grow up” the second, “be complete.” Already in 1880, Trench, the Greek scholar, explained this. “Perfect” is translating teleios . Telioi are the adult having attained the full limits of stature, strength, and mental power. Teleioi are distinguished from the Greek neoi young men, or paides boys. The image here is of full growth contrasted with infancy and childhood (Synonyms, 75). Teleios which EHV and NIV translate ‘perfect’ here get it right later. In Phi. 3:15, they have “let all of us who are mature continue to think this way”. And in James 1:4 they have, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.”
You’re familiar with this distinction between immature and mature. Paul’s well known: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This is illustrated in the insect world: how radically different the larva and pupa stages can be from the mature adult insect. They don’t even look like they’re from the same world. Now we’re on to something. What did we think Jesus and others meant by a New Creation, being born again, or better translated born from above? Being born from out of this world? Imagine being so different, thinking so different about possessions, reputation, self, life others that the wrongs Christ lists in our private life; legal life, or political life aren’t that to us? What might crush a larva or pupa doesn’t faze an adult. As one Greek commentator says, “What seems folly to the world appears in a quiet different light in eternal life” (Ibid Buls, 40).
This true story of the 18th century Duke of Orleans illustrates. He was persecuted by political rivals but became the King of France. When his advisors said now was his opportunity for revenge he replied, “What does the King of France care what happened to the Duke of Orleans?” This is also the true story of the womanizer Augustine after having been converted running away from and shouting over his shoulder to a woman from his former life: “Augustine doesn’t live here anymore!” Can you imagine? The 19th century book Flatland does. A 2-dimensional being drops into a 3-dimensional world. That’s our Father in heaven. Isn’t that what Jesus says? “Be complete as Your Father in heaven is complete.” He raises His sun on the actively evil and the good; He sends His rains on the righteous and the unrighteous. See your OT where He is shown to be perfectly (irony intended) able to have His sun shine and His rain fall where He wants.
But here Jesus, after preaching such sharp law last week in this same sermon, concludes this week with such touching marks of mercy. This is Ex. 14:30 which at the crossing of the Red Sea says, “Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.” The Jewish story is that in heaven the angels saw this too and were partying hardy. One says to God, “Lord why aren’t You rejoicing? You won; Your enemies are dead.” God says, “Should I rejoice when My children lie dead on the seashore?” Again, this is the end of Jonah when the prophet is fried at the Lord sparing the repentant Ninevites who invented barbaric impalement and terrorized Israel and would do so again. The Lord replies to his outrage in the last verse of Jonah: “’Should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right hand and their left—and also many animals’” (4:11).
This is what it means to not believe in a limited atonement, to not believe that God sent His only beloved Son into the world to redeem only some; He didn’t live a holy life in place only in place of the saved, or to die for only believers. This is what it means to believe John 3:16: That God so loved the world. To believe Romans 5:6, “While were still helpless Christ died for the ungodly.” To believe Rom. 5:10, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” To believe the mindboggling truth of 2 Peter 2:1 that Jesus’ holy life and guilty death even bought false prophets and false teachers, who deny “the Lord who bought them.” These weren’t picking up what God was laying down but He was still laying it down in the Person and Work of His Son.
Yeah, right! Is the response of someone who believes the last verse is command not promise. But Jesus isn’t commanding completion, maturing but promising it. It’s not, “you must be complete.” Even the 2 English versions that get it right make it sound like a command. It’s not; it’s a future indicative. It’s a promise. “You will be complete.” You will grow up into the full measure of Christ. If a child lags behind, is a late bloomer, that can be difficult. I always said when it came to playing in Rec leagues that puberty ruled. A child can despair of every growing up. Of course he or she will because that’s biology. Us growing into the full stature of Christ without fail is theology.
As sure as we have a Father in heaven, we will grow to be like Him. From the get-go Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father” because in Him, our Brother, we have God as Father. Our “promise” that a child will grow is based, as I said, on biology. This promise is based on theology. We know the truism: You are what you eat. We marvel at the biological fact that the Pink Flamingo is born white and turns pink from eating brine shrimp. God’s goal in enfleshing His only beloved Son is that we might grow into the likeness and image of Him. And the strongest Medicine for achieving this is The Bread for Tomorrow that we eat today. You will be teleioi promises Jesus. In the Early Church the Means for reaching teleioi is called To Teleion, The End, The Completion. What was? The Lord’s Supper. The Meal of the complete, and also perfect, Body and Blood of our God and Savior, our Redeemer and Brother. It was called this because beyond it there was no privilege left for the Christian to have (Trench, 76).
Without a doubt this is certainly true for us who believe it’s the Body and Blood of Jesus on this altar for us Christians to eat and drink for forgiveness, bodily life, and eternal salvation. But how many of us would endure long years of penitence, the various stages of separation from the Early Church, or be like the king who stood barefoot in the snow expressing his sorrow, in order to be readmitted to the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t it true – truthfully since I can’t read hearts I can only express what’s in mine. It’s true for me that I not only have a “yeah right” to growing to maturity in my Father’s kingdom, but also to the chief Means He uses: the Body and Blood of His Son. Oh, I believe, value, and rely on Jesus who perfectly kept the Law bodily in place of damned humanity and then was completely, in body and soul, was damned, died, and buried to redeem all from such.
Now then, if I met Jesus face to face, I hope that I would be agog, overwhelmed, worshipful. Well, in this Meal, in To Teleion I actually do meet Him. The Agnus Dei we sing, the bowing, kneeling we do here comes from the Early Church and confesses that An Awe-Full Mystery is Here as we sing. Note the spelling of the hymn: it’s a mystery filled with awe. C.S. Lewis observed: “We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow….It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel” (The Weight of Glory, 116). This happen when we do two particular things in Divine Service. When I communicate the Absolution to you and when the Lord communicates His Body and Blood to you.
"'He who loves the Lord come! May he who does not love the Lord be cast out! Maranatha!'"(Didache, 10 6). These words were above the entrance to the celebration of Communion in the apostolic congregations..." (In the Name of Jesus, 194). It’s frightening to be pointed to my love as the basis to commune. Later in this ancient Didache we read: “Let grace come, and let this world pass away. …If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maran Atha. Amen” (10:13-14). We’re holy and complete in our Lord’s world of grace that never passes away. Yeah, right. Yes, that’s right. None of us can even imagine how completely we’ll be transformed in the end. We’ll be standing there surrounded by angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven. And we’ll hear whispers: “How much like Christ he/she is!” We will look around to see this wonderful creature only to find our they’re talking about us. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (20230212); Matthew 5:38-48