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Be Ye Therefore Perfect: Perfection as a Moral Standard

“Nobody is perfect,” we say, and with that formula we relax, we forgive ourselves our mistakes, we forgive each other: we are relieved and easy. And not only us. Every language has phrases that express the sentiments: Nobody is perfect. We are only human. These phrases seem to acknowledge that it is okay to make mistakes, it is okay to fail. But when put in parallel with the Western Christian tradition, these sayings seem sinister and destructive.

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, arguably the most popular sermon of all time (although probably not a sermon at all, but what the Greeks called “an epitome,” or carefully written condensation of a teacher’s doctrine). Well then, insofar as the gospel-Jesus said this, what is the context?

The structure of the sermon is as follows:

I. Beatitudes: Jesus announces the blessedness of certain people and then addresses his disciples as the salt and light of the earth

Salt and light

II. The Law: beginning with “do not think I came to abolish the law,” Jesus presents his interpretations of ancient laws as their fulfillment. Each subsection begins with the the phrase “you have heard.”

Fulfillment (Mt 5:17-20)
Murder (Mt. 5:25-26)
Adultery (Mt 5:27-30)
Divorce (5:31-32)
Oaths (5:33-37)
Resisting evil (5:38-42)
Loving enemies (5:43-47)
Conclusion (5:48)

III. Righteousness: our righteousness must be done in secret. Very formulaic, as is the whole sermon, each subsection begins: when you do such and such, do not be like the hypocrites.


IV. Daily Life: Jesus gives some commands for everyday activity. Each subsection begins with “do not” do such and such.

Pursuit of treasure

V. Religion: Jesus says to be actively involved with God, to seek Heaven, and to beware of false prophets: to practice good religion.

Ask, seek, knock
The narrow gate
False prophets

VI. Conclusion: Jesus says that wisdom is following his commands.

From a cursory look at the sermon, it looks as if Jesus’ injunction to be perfect regards treating our enemies kindly, since “God himself sends nurturing rain on the evil and the good alike” (paraphrased from Mt. 5:45). With a wider look at the structure of the sermon, however, we see that this line, “be perfect as God is perfect,” is in special reference to following the law. The section on law begins with saying “Whoever breaks the commands of the law and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom in heaven … for unless your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Therefore, the injunction to be perfect means following Jesus’ interpretation of the Law; namely, we cannot lust, but should pluck out our eyes if that could possibly happen, that we must give everything we own to anybody who asks, that we should resist nobody, but let them sue us for whatever they want, hit us, and abuse us–with no resistance whatsoever.

No wonder in the West our sense of perfection is as an unachievable ideal. Who could live this way? “Only Jesus could live that way,” the pastors tell us. “God knows we will fail to follow his perfect laws, and so he commanded us to do these things so that we would learn how wretched and sinful we really are. Only then will we be humbled to confess our sins to God and accept Jesus in our heart.”

Whether or not we buy that Jesus was tricking us with these commands, and that he knew that they were impractical, this sense of perfection as being impossibly above us has pervaded our culture. We all know such phrases as:

To err is human, we are only human, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, its okay to have flaws, just ask for forgiveness every time you pray, we’re not angels, we are of the flesh until heaven, we are the all-too-human, sin is human nature.

Why are we willing to believe that perfection is so hard? “Nobody is perfect” they teach, and believe, uncritically. We’ve been brainwashed to think perfection is impossible. The newspapers, movies, pulpits, parents–all unite on this, that perfection is impossible. They tell us everywhere that evil is normal. This is a trick, for evil is not normal. “Well nobody is perfect” they actually say as a slogan of triumph, such is their laziness.

Moral perfection is possible only at the death of ideal. With our ideals we realize our flaws. Yet we do not worship ideal, or sing ideal, or weep ideal; we destroy ideal! We destroy ideal by becoming it.

The aim of morality is to become the rules. Virtues are not to be memorized but realized. Indeed, it is good to forget the rules, and with them forget there is even a possibility of failure.

The ideal of perfection is the ideal of failure. While they pretend to strive always to become perfect, perfection is not their true ideal. Striving is. In this, they feel satisfied. Instead of actually being perfect, they believe they should be failures ever “wanting” perfection. So they are static: oscillating around that same circuit with no bold turn. They are satisfied with the perpetual guilt of inferiority. Therefore, the idealist is one who cannot become. He already is. It is his duty to pretend and to thirst. He is the ape of his ideal, the singer of rationalization. Thus, he devours his hands.

Why is “perfection” a failure? An ideal’s key virtue is its adaptability. Any ideal that we cannot become is no ideal at all, but a lie.

Why clothe perfection in impossibility? Who cares about impossibility? It is doubly ugly, for it, itself, is an imperfection. What have ideals ever done but subjugate and destroy individuality? “Be this, do that, look this way, say that thing”–for who? For what? What is the point?

“I cannot be perfect.” Then what is the best you can be? Be that your perfection. But now I call you to question. Why should perfection be hard? Why not easy? Perfection is easy; I never rationalize again and it’s over. A perfect person is not one who makes no mistakes, but one who does not choose to make what he knows to be a mistake.

A perfect person will not excel in every virtue, for each of us emphasizes his own virtues. One person is more generous, another more jocund, another more sensitive, another more frank. This makes it easier for us to become. For in our youth and infancy, we learned a social tool that worked especially well. Ever after, we cherish that tool. When confronted with a new situation, we of course face it with a familiar tool rather then inventing a new one. For instance, the young child who once avoided punishment from his mom by making a joke may become a humorous man.

“Mistakes” are not imperfections. When we begin a new habit, we must make effort. It is good that our body resists this effort, for this resistance represents stability. To mistake is human. Perfection learns. A mistake is education, an error is knowledge. The difference between flaw and perfection is one of kind, not degree. There is no “almost perfect.” Perfection improves.

Well even the Christians must consider this take on perfection. Consider the infant Jesus. Do you think he did not take his first step, his second, and plop!–fall on his face? Or make a faux pas as a preteen, or get confused as an adolescent? This is what it is to be fully human. This is learning. It is a step towards the goal and not the goal itself.

Christianity is a misunderstanding. What is said? “Every stoic was a stoic, but in Christendom, where is the Christian?” (Emerson) “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross” (Nietzsche). In fact, it is the sheep’s first act of protection to state outright: “I cannot aspire to Godhood in this life.” Yet he who does not found his perfection in this life will never find it. Christianity is the crystallization of the sinner, nothing else. “Forgive me a humble sinner,” would be acceptable if uttered but once, but when memorized and scheduled they become the most evil words.

Therefore, as atheists and humanists we must question the term “perfection,” and ask it what it is doing for us. Is it damning us? Is it limiting us? Is it some impossibly high standard meant to keep us humble? Or can we say, “Perfection is honestly doing one’s best,” which we can do, consistently, and be proud rather then afraid of our mistakes and accomplishments.