Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.-Matthew 5:48
This scripture seems to be the perfect recipe for justifying perfectionism. We think, “Jesus said we need to ‘be perfect,’ so I had better be perfect in all I do, or else! If I am not doing everything perfectly, then I am not doing as Jesus said.”
I think this is a deep misunderstanding of this verse, which obscures its meaning, which is beautiful.
The Greek word translated as “perfect” is teleios, which also means a fullness, completeness, finished, consummation, lacking nothing, full-grown. I prefer the word whole, and a related word, holy and holiness. That which is whole is holy.
We often think that this scripture means that we need to perfect the ego-self, the “self” we think we are. We must make it, the ego-self, morally perfect, devoid of all imperfection, pure, absolutely virtuous, upright, etc. But I think this is impossible, and this is the cause of much shame and heartache in life.
The ego-self will never be perfect, ever! It is the very thing which causes us to not be perfect, the source of all imperfection, impurity, “sin,” separateness from God, defilements, delusions of mind and perception, immorality, suffering, seemingly being broken off from the wholeness of reality and the cosmos. It is the origin of the dualistic subject, apart from all “other” objects, and therefore all relativity and subjectivity, which is partial, incomplete, fallible, etc.
Our attempts to perfect the ego-self, I think, are quite misguided. They will never work, at least not in full. We will never perfect that which is the very cause and source of all imperfection. You cannot make perfect that which is imperfect, as the New Testament writers also seemed to realize:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.-Hebrews 10:1
So what did Jesus mean to be “teleios”?
I perceive that Jesus meant for us to recognize within ourselves the wholeness that is ever-present in our essence, in our original creation as a manifestation of God, a “Son of God,” an offspring of the Divine, an incarnation of God, deep in our basic nature, our original nature, our original identity, our original blessing, our original wholeness at-one with reality, with the cosmos, with our Source, our “Father,” the One. This exists prior to the emergence of the dualistic ego-self in our mind, this constructed sense of “self” that is seemingly apart from all others.
Jesus had just spoken about how we should love our enemies, and pray for those that persecute you, “that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew. 5:45). We are all those “children,” even our enemies and persecutors, that very same emanation of the Divine, that expression of the One, and this is why we love our enemies. They are one with us in this most essential of identities in God or Ultimate Reality. We are One. They are part of our Self. And so we love them as our Self, at-one and whole in the incarnation of the “Father.”
Jesus went on to say how God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends the rains to the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). He is pointing to the nondualistic nature of the Divine, how God sees all beings as One and the same, and does not give preferential treatment of one group over another. God loves those beings who do evil and those who do good, in an unconditional way. Of course, God may not love those evil acts people do, perhaps noting that they “know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). But the people themselves are all part of the One, members of the whole that we all are.
So when Jesus said that we should be teleios, it seems to me that he was saying that we should reflect that same grace of God, that of the nondualistic mind, the wholeness and oneness of the Divine, which sees all things and beings as manifestations of the “Father,” and that we should come to recognize this essential true Self within us, our divine nature. Be ye therefore whole, just as the One from which we’ve come and in which we are is whole. Let go of your divisive mind, the dualistic mind, the ego-self that separates people into good groups and bad groups, in-groups and out-groups, into this and that, differentiating and fragmenting reality to pieces, determining who is worthy of love and who is not. God is Love, and God made all, so there is Love in all, even if we can’t see it, even if it is veiled by our ego-mind.
When we surrender the ego-mind, the ego-self, that dualistic subject, we may come to realize that we are whole and complete already, just as we are. We (ego-self) stop judging our Self (true Self), in our finite body-mind and in all other bodies, as something “bad.” We see that we are perfect even in our imperfection, whole in our brokenness, at-one in our apparent fallen and alienated state, and this is a paradox that perhaps is incomprehensible to our dualistic mind. But when the dualistic ego falls away from consciousness, we see this wholeness directly in all its radiant glory. We see the true Self in its purity, in its blameless truth, in its innocence, holiness, even as the Lamb of God, the “Christ.” It is “perfect” just as it is, without changing a thing. It has always been perfect, just as it is, without changing a thing. It was just covered over, obscured, veiled by the “natural man,” by the dualistic “self” in consciousness.
As Richard Rohr has said,
Divine perfection is always imperfection.
The paradox of reality is that God manifests its Self, incarnates its Self, in all the apparent brokenness, multiplicity, and imperfection of the cosmos. This is perhaps the suffering of Christ, the cross that the Divine One bears in all of life. It only looks broken and imperfect because of our dualistic perception, which judges things to be better or worse, good or bad, right or wrong, categorizing things as worthy or unworthy, light or dark, complete or broken, full or partial, all the opposites and polarities of existence. But when we transcend that ego-mind, we see it is all whole, in unity, One, perfect, complete, just as it should be, despite its appearance of brokenness and multiplicity. It is both apparently broken and whole at the same time, but its wholeness is greater, more foundational, fundamental, original, essential, basic, true, eternal. Only nondual consciousness can hold these paradoxes at once.
Being “perfect,” perhaps means realizing that nondual consciousness, transcending the judging dualistic mind, going beyond the apparent brokenness we see in reality to its essential wholeness, a return to seeing the Truth deep in our nature that is complete in God, that is at-one with all beings, all things, all people, the Whole, in Love, which is what compels us to love all people as manifestations of that same Divine Being we ourselves are. We see our Self in them, and therefore love them as our Self.
As the Christian mystic and monk Thomas Merton once said:
We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be, is what we are.
This is essentially what I believe Jesus was saying in this verse. Realize your original unity, your original wholeness, your original oneness, your true essence, your true Self, your completeness in God, your true nature. Be that. Pierce the veil of your dualistic illusions, your divisionary mindset, the subject-object dualism of your ego-mind, the illusions which make you feel separate from others, separate from the whole, which judges others, which fails to love others as the Self, your imaginings which are erroneous. Realize who you really are, as One in God, in the same nature as God. Be ye whole, and One, just as God is whole, and One. Be what you really truly already are, but which your mind has veiled from your awareness, which deceives you.
I once translated this verse in the BHT as follows:
Then realize your essential nature is perfect, or complete and whole, even as the Source from which you’ve come is complete and whole.-Matthew 5:48, BHT
During this life we will never be perfect in the way we usually think, not in our incarnational finite body-mind being. But we can transcend this imperfection, put off the “natural man,” transcend to a nondual consciousness, and realize our ever-present perfection in our divine nature, a wholeness that is eternal in our center, in our original created nature, which is never not perfect or whole, and this unites us with all other beings and people. It is God. It is Reality itself.