I did my internship at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Enormous sanctuary. My daughters said that on the inside, it looked like a huge brick barn. I can’t deny that. It DID look like the inside of a huge brick barn, in a sleek, contemporary sort of way. The pews weren’t so much that, but benches-with-backs. There was very little else in that space in the way of furniture or Christian symbolism. Really, the only give-aways that it was a church sanctuary, was the smallish baptismal font and a ginormous wooden cross which hung from the ceiling.
One of the really novel things about Bradley Hills, besides it’s architecture and it’s interior design, is that it shares space with Bethesda Jewish Congregation. On Friday afternoons, the Jewish contingency would take over the sanctuary to prepare for its Friday night worship. There was a switch on the sanctuary wall. Someone would flip that switch and behold! A cloth rendition of a Torah would descend from the ceiling, and sheath the cross. Cool, huh? Then, Sunday morning, the church custodian would flip that same switch. The Torah would ascend, and behold the cross!
The two congregations would hold joint services several times a year, too. These were a testament to the close relationship between the two congregations, but also, I think, a recognition of the close relationship between two different faith traditions—Judaism and Christianity.
And now I would like to introduce you to one particular member of Bradley Hills Presbyterian. Her name is Elizabeth. The year I worked there, she was assigned to look after me. She introduced me to church members, gave me some background into that church’s programs—that kind of thing.
Elizabeth was a great help, however Elizabeth was one nervous Nellie. Her introduction said it all: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth. I am a recovering perfectionist.” And she was that, although it didn’t seem to me her recovery was going all that well. In conversations, she would often stop mid-sentence, to correct herself. I can’t know for sure, but I think she did that because she was in constant self-analysis mode. She was wanting to perfect her every spoken word. She was extremely cautious in what she said on any given topic--religion, politics, child rearing, the weather, even. It was as if she walked through life on tentative tiptoe. So for instance, she might say, “It’s such a beautiful sunny day. No, no, well, there are a few clouds in the sky, and forecasters ARE calling for rain, so maybe it’s not THAT beautiful a day….” Our conversations confused and exhausted me.
To be perfect. That is what Elizabeth was trying NOT to be, but Jesus says we are to BE perfect, just like our heavenly father is perfect. How can that be? You know and I know that perfection is an impossible goal to achieve. You might be this close to achieving it, but there is always some itsy-bitsy thing you could do better. And even if it were possible to reach perfection, where would that get you? Wouldn’t you just spend your days trying to hold on to that perfect state? And wouldn’t you still just end up like nervous Nellie Elizabeth? And, think about this, would anyone actually LIKE you if you WERE perfect? Honestly, would YOU ever want to be married to a perfect person? Would YOU really want to be best friends with a perfect person? It’s our imperfections that make us endearing. It’s our imperfections that make our friends and loved ones endearing to us..
Why, then, would Jesus say, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect?” That is exactly what some of you asked each other in a Bible study several months ago—and if you recall, I didn’t say a word. I just listened. I filed that question away up here. I promised myself that I would preach on perfection some Sunday during the summer. And this is that Sunday!
So, here we go. This is what I know. The New Testament including the gospel of Matthew was written in ancient Greek. The Greek word for perfect is teleos. Teleos is the root of our English word, teleological. According to Webster’s dictionary, teleological, is “a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes,” which is more than any of us will ever need to know. Teleos, though? Well, in Greek, it just means end goal, as in an acorn’s teleos is to become an oak tree. Other English equivalents might be fulfillment and of course, that stumbling block, for us, perfection.
Although WE might not want to pursue perfection, the Ancient Greeks loved, loved, loved the concept. You might even say that they invented it. Think about the great thinkers of that time—Pythagorus, Plato, are two that come immediately to mind. With no concept of perfection, would they have worked so hard to achieve all that they did? And really, aren’t our sciences, as created and promoted by those ancient Greeks--math, astronomy-- aren’t they all about perfection? So definitely there is a place for perfection in our thinking. But maybe perfection is best left to scientists in their laboratories. Maybe it is best not to apply perfection to our relationships, and, in the way we comport ourselves in our day-to-day living.
I said that the ancient Greeks might have invented perfection. I wasn’t kidding. As you may know by now, my favorite theologian, who died, sadly, in 2012, is Walter Wink. What a fine scholar he was! I went to a week-long Walter Wink-lead-conference when I lived in the DC area. We actually talked about this passage in Matthew, “Be Perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
So, I introduced you to Elizabeth earlier in this sermon, now I will introduce you to Walter Wink. He was from Texas, so he had a Texas drawl. For our conference breakouts, we sat in a large circle, and Walter sat among us—his chair on two legs, so that he could rock back in forth. It was like he was sitting on his front porch rocker, “back home” on the ranch, just chewing the fat with his circle of friends. He himself used a Greek translation of the Bible. He read that as easily as we might read English. He had an excellent command of Hebrew, too, and probably other ancient languages, but I don’t know that for sure. Anyway, he would read to us from his Greek Bible and then we would discuss the passage together.
What I liked about Walter Wink is that he was one of us. He struggled with the same stuff we struggle with. Like us, when he was just beginning his career as a religious professor, he was flummoxed by “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
Here is what he knew. Aramaic was Jesus’ first language. He could also read Hebrew, a close cousin of Aramaic. Jesus might have known Greek, enough to speak it anyway, but we don’t know that for sure. We DO know that when he spoke with his fellow Judeans, and when we taught, he spoke in Aramaic.
You following me here? Jesus communicated and taught in Aramaic. Now comes the kicker. You ready for this? Jesus could not have said “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect,” for the simple reason that the word perfect did not exist in the Aramaic language. Let me say that again, the word perfect, did not exist in the Aramaic language.
Now think about this—something that is sure to give you a headache: If the word perfect did not exist in Aramaic, did the concept of perfection exist in Jesus’ Jewish world?
It’s like the tree falling in the forest, isn’t it? If no one is around to hear it fall, did it actually make a sound? And, if the concept of perfection did NOT exist in Jewish culture, what would life have been like? You could do well at your studies, but you could never be a perfect, A+ student. Say you were a potter. You could produce a good piece of pottery, say, but never a perfect piece of pottery. Would that matter to you? For me, anyway, a weight is lifted. How freeing that would be!
But here’s another question for you: if Jesus never said, could not have said, “Be perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect,” what did he say that was later mistranslated and written down by those ancient Greeks?”
Glad you asked! The gospel of Luke has a lot of the same passages as in Matthew—almost word for word, in some places. In our scripture passage for today, in Matthew, Jesus talks about loving our enemies. He ends his teaching with “be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect,” In Luke, the sixth chapter, Jesus instructs his listeners to “love your enemies,” just like in Matthew. In Luke, though, Jesus continues with, “Be merciful, just as your father in heaven is merciful.”
Be merciful. That makes more sense than “be perfect,” in the context in which it is used, right? Love your enemies, AND consequently be merciful to them. Should you come face to face with your enemy with your sword drawn, remember, God has told you to love that enemy. Maybe don’t run him through with your sword.
Being merciful—well that is almost as impossible a goal to achieve as being perfect, isn’t it? What am I saying? It is every bit as impossible to achieve as being perfect! We have this side of our nature, an ugly side—We want to get even, take revenge. We want to blame and punish the other--for their life circumstances, being poor, being born in the wrong country, having the wrong religion. Yet, our teleos, says Jesus, is to love the other. The proof of that love will be the mercy we practice. Be merciful just as your father in heaven is merciful.
So, in our time together, we’ve talked about the close connection between Judaism and Christianity—remember the descending and ascending Torah? And we’ve talked some about the ancient Jewish worldview, which perhaps did not include a concept of perfection. In light of what I have shared with you, maybe you’ve decided as I have decided, that the ancient Jews were on to something. Maybe, like me, you’ve decided NOT to strive for perfection in your relationships; in your day-to-day living.
Like Nervous Nellie Elizabeth, let us become recovering perfectionists. Let us strive instead to be merciful, but NOT perfectly merciful. Amen