“Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). In theory, this can be affirming to perfectionists. It can validate their desire to get everything right – Jesus himself commanded this, and so we must pursue it, right? But in practice, nothing can be more frustrating than seeing your efforts always falling short. Have you ever had even just one day when everything went according to plan with no delays, no mistakes, and no one offended? How can we ever be perfect? We are not the heavenly Father; we are just flawed creatures here on earth.
“Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Teleios is the Greek word translated as “perfect,” but perfect is not the only possible translation. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of books from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament), teleios is used to translate the words shalem and tamim. These words are not really about being free from error but more about being whole and complete.
Some may say tempering “perfect” by using “whole” and “complete” does not really help much. Those who try to be whole are more often than not confronted with all their holes. Those seeking to be complete are forced to face their inadequacies, what they still lack, and how in-complete they really are.
Near the end of one retreat many years ago, I remember having a sense a clarity about what I had to do and how I was to do it. I felt I had received the answers in prayer: I just needed to be less judgmental and more forgiving of others, and I was all set. I had it all together – or so I thought. During the Mass that concluded the retreat, a religious sister, who was more than just a bit on the plump side, sang the Responsorial Psalm in an operatic voice. I leaned over and snarkily whispered to a seminarian beside me, “Now we know that the retreat is really over. The fat lady has sung.” As she kept on missing high note after high note, I remember chuckling with my seatmate and thinking that our chortling was more melodic than her attempt at singing. The homily during that Mass was delivered by another retreatant, and as he droned past the twenty-minute mark, I remember wanting to suggest if we could just ask the sister to sing again. That was at least entertaining (in a masochistic way). The Mass was peppered with snide remark after sarcastic retort until the exchange of the sign of peace when I had to greet the psalmist, the homilist, and the other people I had maligned in the span of an hour. That was when my hypocrisy finally struck me. I was still horribly imperfect, very much broken, and terribly incomplete – and I was not even out of the retreat yet.
How can we be perfect, whole, and complete?
Maybe the first step is in admitting how far we still have to go. If you think you are complete in yourself, you will not have a reason to approach God. Jesus gently reminds us, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Maybe a next step is in realizing how, even when we are imperfect, broken, and incomplete, God already accepts us. He does not wait until we become saints before coming to us. But while the Lord may accept us as we are, we cannot remain just as we are. We have to strive to be better.
But what does striving to be better mean? Does it mean making less mistakes? Does it mean enjoying more success in our projects? Does it mean having a greater number of people approve of us? “Be complete just as your heavenly Father is complete.” And what makes the Father complete? Our Gospel today gives us an answer: “He makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” God loves even those who do not love him. What completes the Father is a love that is ever expanding. Striving better, coming closer to completeness, means loving more and more.
The word teleios has its roots in telos, which means purpose or goal. We become teleios when we strive towards our telos, our purpose or goal. As trite as it may sound – and maybe its triteness comes from its truth – we come closer to completeness when we discover that our true purpose is to love more and more.
One of the most romantic lines to ever be said in a movie is surely, “You complete me.” What can complete you? Before we get all starry-eyed and dreamy, some cold water to wake us up: What does it look like to be complete?
Jesus’ last word on the cross: “Tetelestai.” It does not just sound like teleios; both words actually have the same root and revolve around the same ambit of meaning: “Completed.” Being complete is not sitting comfortably on a throne being adored. Being complete is hanging beaten and bloodied on the cross but still with arms outflung, loving even those who reject you.
After reading this article, look for a mirror, and say to the person who will stare back at you: “You are far from complete. But God accepts you even in your incompleteness. What will complete you? How can you come closer to becoming complete?” But all this is not about just being complete. Jesus tells us to be complete as your heavenly Father is complete. All of this must be in relation to the Father. After all, we cannot become complete without the Father. From looking straight into the mirror, look up to heaven and say, “Please guide me and help me on the way to completeness. May the striving to be complete bring me to you.”