by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
October 29, 2003
PERFECT? OR WHAT?
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Not often, but often enough, I am glad to have endured the ordeal of being the only major in Classical Greek at Duke. It comes in handy not only when I am trying to explain a word like "bibliophobe" to a grandchild, but also when I am trying to explain to myself what exactly it is that I believe, or do not believe.
Of all the utterances of Jesus, few cause more trouble than that reported by Matthew (5:48): Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Love your enemies. Bless those that curse you. Sell all that you have and give it to the poor. These directives, hard as they seem, are at least conceivable. But perfect? As in...perfect? And not just perfect, but as perfect as God Himself?
Reactions to this range from: Well. He meant we should try, right? Or: Well, that's Jesus for you, otherworldly. Or: Jesus was so good Himself that He was too optimistic concerning human nature. Least charitable: He was an idiot. (Absit invidia!)
But was it someone naive about human motives, or an idiot, who advised His apostles (Matt. 10:16) to be as cunning as serpents and as harmless as doves?
The fact is that Jesus, in all His interactions with the rich and powerful of His day, is seen to be not only astute in His judgment of human motives but also indomitably shrewd in coping with them.
A far more fruitful approach is to look at the actual words of Matthew's gospel before anyone had helpfully tried to translate them into English. What did Jesus say that comes down to us as "perfect"?
Maybe Mel Gibson knows the actual Aramaic, but I know at least the Greek word that the translators of King James were struggling with, and "perfect" is, though plausible in the 16th Century and even today, not adequate to what I take the meaning of Jesus to have been.
The Greek for this passage is, hold tight everyone: Esesthe oun humeis teleioi, hosper ho patir humon ho en tois ouranois teleios esti. It is the fourth word and the penultimate word that convey the English "perfect."
But the Greek words convey not the impossible ideal of perfection, the unthinkable freedom from the least blemish, something that exists only in the ideal world of thought and never in our actual world.
If the Greek words means "perfect," they means it in the sense of "complete, full grown." It was the regular way of describing an adult, a full-grown man. A man who merited this adjective would be one in control of himself and, to that extent, of his fate.
The essential is this: Teleios refers to one who has achieved balance, who has made his peace even with the inner imperfections, and even contradictions that we must all (at least those of us who have managed to deserve the adjective) acknowledge as a part of ourselves, a dark, unhappy part, but a part nevertheless.
If such equilibrium between all the parts of our mixed human nature is perfection, then so be it.
Author's Note: The above notes are inspired by a splendid book by John A. Sanford, "The Kingdom Within: The inner meaning of Jesus's sayings." Paulist Press, 1970. The author of many books, Sanford is an Episcopal priest and a Jungian analyst. He writes with authority, grace, and above all convincingly.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.