It’s funny how different things can look from just a slightly changed perspective. I remember as a fallen-away Catholic college sophomore responding to what must have been a Divine prompting by picking up a copy of the New Testament and starting to read. I can’t say why, as a cradle Catholic, I didn’t first seek out the sacraments or a priest: maybe it was a result of the catechesis I received in the ‘70’s. In any case, I began with the first chapter of Mathew’s Gospel, and things were looking cool until I came to the Sermon on the Mount. Here I began to entertain the unpleasant suspicion that a Journey of Faith might entail some Demands (horribile dictu!) upon me. I continued nonetheless until I came to Chapter 5, verse 48: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I needed to be perfect? This was asking way too much, I thought. I put the book down. It would be almost another ten years before I gave serious thought to returning to the practice of the Faith.
And yet that passage troubled me on and off for a long time. Odd that as a Classics major, and later a Latin teacher, it didn’t occur to me to look up the Greek word that was translated into English as “perfect”. If it had, I might have found Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 5:48 less overwhelming (although at the time, honestly, I may not have wanted that badly to be saved from my sins).
Eventually, of course, it did happen. As an older and (somewhat) wiser man I was explaining to my students that the Latin word perfectus had not yet completely taken on its modern connotation of flawlessness or moral perfection; its primary meaning was “finished” or “complete”, which is why the verb tense denoting completed action is called the perfect tense. That’s when the proverbial light went off in my head: was this the word St. Jerome used in translating the Gospel from Greek in the fourth century, and if so, what did the Greek word mean?
What I found changed my entire perception of the passage. The Latin is indeed perfectus, and is a translation of the Greek word teleioi. Teleioi is related to the noun telos, “end”, and the adjective signifies something that has reached its proper end, or fulfillment, i.e., is complete. I also realized, for the first time, that verse 48 is intended as a conclusion to the verses preceding (notice the word “therefore”; oun in Greek):
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. MT 5:44-48
Just as God loves completely (i.e., everyone), and forgives completely, so must we. Now, that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t calling us to strive for perfection as we understand the word today: he certainly is. In this particular passage, however, he is primarily concerned teaching us to love with a perfect love, and he gives us a “road map”, if you will, to show us how to get there. That’s still a pretty tall order, but somehow it seemed less hopelessly impossible when I could see Jesus is proposing concrete actions to move us closer.
I don’t want to make it seem that my difficulty with one scripture verse held me back from rejoining the Mystical Body of Christ for a decade. I needed more experience of life, of realizing the futility of trying to do things “my way”, and particularly of the Mystery of the Cross to soften my heart and lead me back to the Lord. Nevertheless, coming to a new appreciation of Christ’s call to perfection in Matthew 5:48 removed one small but significant barrier on that journey.