Over the Christmas holiday, while I was lying in bed with a fever, I had several great theological epiphanies. One had to do with this very tricky saying from Jesus, “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” At face value, there are two major problems: first, it would appear we can be perfect; second, if we fail to be perfect, we fail God. There must be a better reading.
Normally this passage comes up in our Sunday lectionary at the end of February and I would preach about it but it comes up only once every three years. Since Easter is early this year we will not hear “be perfect as God is perfect.” And the next time we will is February 24, 2030! Thus, I wanted to write to you about it now. In 12 years, when I do preach on it, I hope you won’t remember this Reflection, or, if you do, you won’t call me out on it.
The revelation I received is this command from Jesus, “Be creative as your Father in Heaven is always-creating.” I like this reading because as long as I am creative, like my Father in Heaven is always creating, I will fulfill Jesus’ command.
The problem is that on the surface, the translation is not Biblical. The Greek word translated as “perfect” is not translatable as “to create.” The Greek word Teleios (pronounced “telly-ohs”) is an adjective that means brought to its end, finished, needs nothing to be complete, mature, perfect in integrity and virtue, or an unblemished item to be given/sacrificed. Likewise, the root telos (pronounced “tell-us”) is a noun that means end, the end, termination, that-by-which-a-thing-is finished, closed. As you can see, Teleios has nothing to do with creating.
Teleios is used 19 times in the New Testament, only twice in Matthew’s Gospel – the aforementioned phrase and this one, (Jesus said) “If you want to be teleois, sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, then follow me.” (19:21) In the first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “stop thinking like children; think like teleios (“mature”) people and as innocent as babies.” (14:20) Similarly, in the letter to the Ephesians, “Then we will be teleios (mature), just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him.” (4:13) St. James, in his letter, writes “All of us do many wrong things. But, if you can control your tongue, you are teleios (mature) and able to control your whole body.” (3:2) This small sampling shows there is a lot more to teleios than perfect. But “to create” is not a recognized translation.
What words can you think of that start with “tele”? Television, telephone, telegram, telescope telepathy, telemetry. Like the old phone commercial, “Reach out and touch someone,” tele has a sense of going outside of oneself. Teleios is a way of reaching out of oneself to better oneself. The passage, “Be perfect…” is the cap of the Sermon on the Mount, a series of commands from Jesus that involve not judging others but instead praying for one’s enemies, carrying someone’s backpack longer than expected, greeting strangers, loving others not just family members and friends. For me, I can’t judge others if I am being creative. I am a more teleios person if I create and not judge. Being creative, like my Father in Heaven is creative, helps me be more Christ-like because I can’t judge and create at the same time. Christ, who can judge, instead reaches outside of Himself to love others in interesting and creative ways. Like Him, who creates, so must I.