In a previous blog I introduced Gerhard Lohfink’s suggestion that wholeness is the key to the Sermon and in another I gave his arguments for this claim. But what about the arguments for Matt 5:48 being about wholeness? Does “perfect” (teleios) mean “wholeness”?
Matt 5:48 is in some sense a header for the whole section beginning with 5:21, but its immediate context is 5:43-47:
43”You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)
First, note the imitation pattern in v. 48: “perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A similar imitation pattern could be detected in vv. 44-45: Disciples are to love undividedly — not divide people into those to hate and those to love (cf. v. 43) — just as their Father loves undividedly. The creator is not divided in his love and faithfulness but “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (v. 45). When the disciples imitate their Father in this way they show that they are his children (v. 45). These parallel imitation patterns suggest that perfect is at least partly parallel with a whole and undivided love and faithfulness.
Secondly, the word “perfect” (teleios) seems to denote wholeness in other contexts of importance for and/or parallel to v. 48. (a) The faithfulness discussed in Matt 5:17-48 is closely related to the “law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17-20; 7:12), and in the Old Testament (in Greek translation) “perfect” could denote an undivided loyalty towards God (Gen 6:9; Deut 18:13; 1 Kgs [3 Kgdms] 8:61; 11:4; 15:3; 14:1; 1 Chr 28:9). (b) In Matt 19:21 being “perfect” is about having a wholeheartedly trust and obedience to God. This verse echoes the emphasis on having only one lord in Matt 6:24.
Thirdly, the wider context supports the two previous observations. (a) If v. 48 is some sort of header or concluding remark for the so-called antithesis in Matt 5:21-48, then v. 48 is closely tied to examples of true faithfulness to the Torah as interpreted by and fulfilled in Jesus (Matt 5:17-20). These examples envision a life where love is practiced in every sphere of life as obedience to the Father – an undivided faithfulness. This argument depends on an understanding of obedience as an integral part of a covenant relationship rather than being a sort of legalism. Faithfulness or loyalty are proper terms in this context since the obedience required in Matt 5:21-47 is clearly set within relationships with God and with the neighbor. If this is correct, then undivided faithfulness is somewhat parallel to being perfect. (b) The examples about an undivided life in my previous blog also suggest that v. 48 is set within a larger emphasis on wholeness.
This is part three of a series of blogs on the Sermon on the Mount.