Why Did Jesus Demand “Perfection”?

Why Did Jesus Demand “Perfection”? August 21, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 4.29.04 PMOne of Jesus’ most famous sayings was “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” and it is found in the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5:48. Interestingly, Luke doesn’t have the word perfection (teleios) but has “be merciful as your Father is merciful.” Instead of teleios Luke has oiktirmos.

That may well be a clue, but before we get to that clue I want to look at Jonathan Pennington’s wonderful new book on the Sermon called The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. (Maybe this image to the right was what his listeners were seeing as Jesus taught.)

Here are Jonathan’s points that lead to a solution for the meaning of “perfection” for the Sermon on the Mount.

First, the problem for so many in the church is that the term means sinlessness and flawlessness and therefore rigorous perfectionism and perfectionistic features. The problem with this term is that it can lead to neurotic scrupulosity.

Second, the term teleios has a background in the Old Testament/Jewish literature in the notions of shalom and tamim, roughly, peace and wholeness or completeness or devotedness. In using devotedness for qadosh/holiness, Pennington and I agree in a significant way: the term Holiness means more than separation or separateness; it means devoted to God and therefore separate.

Third, the virtue tradition in Plato and Aristotle is all about the same idea of wholeness. The virtuous life then is the life of teleios.

Fourth, now to the Gospels, to Matthew, to the Sermon on the Mount: we are staring at a term that means wholeness and singular devotion to God. Jonathan ably shows that the idea of teleios or wholeness can summarize the whole Sermon, and my only pushback here would be that many other terms have been used to do the same — the most obvious one is dikaiosune or righteousness, which it can be argued has even more programmatic appearance in the Sermon.

He has made a very good case for understanding teleios as wholeness. We might ask what wholeness is? Is it devotion and is devotion a true ethical telos?

I observe this: I press harder for the value of Luke 6:26’s use of oiktirmos, for the significance of understanding Matt 5:48’s teleios in the context of loving our enemies and the concept of love at the heart of Jesus’ ethical vision, and not just that teleios summarizes 5:17-48 but that love of God and love of others is what those passages are about as well. How so? Matt 22:34-40 shows that the fundamental ethical core to the whole torah is loving God and loving others. In other words, teleios’s fundamental expression is agape, which is wholeness and what devotedness to God are about. To flourish is to love God and to love others. That is what human flourishing are all about.

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