What is Flourishing? 2 – The Dark Shadow of Perfection
Hello again! In the last blog post I suggested that growing and changing is not an option for us humans: it’s happening whether we like it or not, so we might as well get involved. This time I’d like to suggest that the New Testament offers us something that we should be growing towards, the way plants grow towards the sun.
The British Broadcasting Corporation is a remarkable institution, trusted around the world. Although it is funded by a unique system somewhere between subscription and taxation, which is meant to ensure its independence, it is nonetheless subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; namely, the British government. At one point, the government questioned why the BBC spent so much money on popular music when commercial radio stations did that just as well.
In response, the BBC called in a lot of favours and recorded a version of Lou Reed’s song Perfect Day, enlisting the talents of singers as diverse as David Bowie, Tammy Wynette, soprano Lesley Garrett, a gospel choir and Lou Reed himself to defend the uniqueness of the BBC’s music output. It is a perfect version of a perfect song about a perfect day.
Perfect. What a word. When Jesus says to a big crowd of listeners (not even his paid-up disciples), ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48), why don’t we hear about the crowd grumbling to themselves, ‘This is ridiculous, we can’t be perfect like God!’? Like many people who have tried to follow Jesus, I have found this verse too difficult to understand, so I’ve just ignored it. I’ve assumed that it must mean that I am supposed to be morally perfect, which – sorry to disappoint you mum – I’m just not going to manage.
I want to do a quick deep dive into the word that Matthew uses, which is teleios. It literally means ‘completed.’ When Paul says that he wants to present the believers as ‘mature in Christ’ (Col 1:28), and when he says that the purpose of good leadership is to make people mature (Eph 4:4), he uses the same word, teleios. Jesus wants us to be this thing, Paul wants us to be this thing, it must be important. Fortunately, people far smarter than me have looked into this, noticing that the ancient Greek writers talk about the god Zeus being teleios. This is nothing to do with his moral perfection (Zeus is a cranky Dad), but rather his ability to follow through on what he says he will do – literally, he is a completer-finisher. The word teleios comes from the word telos, which means ‘end’ or ‘goal’. So perhaps what Jesus and Paul are saying is that God is moving towards a goal that he will complete (what the Bible calls, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’), and we also need to move towards our own individual telos.
Here the preceding verses of Matthew help us understand what our ultimate goal is: love. Love of neighbour, yes, but also love of enemy. That’s not much easier than being morally perfect, but it’s something I can live towards!
So here is my completely amateur attempt to retranslate the Bible:
You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’ but I’m telling you that people who know that God is Abba will love their enemies and pray for the very people who are trying to do them harm – that is the very mark of his followers. There’s nothing special about being kind to the people who are kind to you; instead, grow towards God’s purposes, which we can be sure he will complete. This means becoming more and more transformed into love. (Matt 5:43-48)
Does that make you feel better? I hope so. We still have an amazing calling from God, but it’s not to be PERFECT in that scary way. We don’t have to be perfect overnight, but rather we have something to grow towards: God’s amazing love and amazing plan. Love is not something we can just turn on like a tap, it really takes time to become a more loving person. We can’t just try to love more; that way madness lies, as Paul says over and over. Instead, he says that we need to let God’s Spirit get involved in our growing. Without moisture, food and light, a seed can try all it likes, it just isn’t going to grow. When God provides the right environment, we have a much better chance of becoming the people that Love is calling us to be. More on that next time.