Be ye therefore perfect (Matthew 5:48) is well-loved scripture among Mormons, but also the source of much frustration and angst. Elder Jeffrey Holland focused on the frustration side of things in his General Conference talk in October 2017. He recounts what he hears from members across the globe: “I am just not good enough.” “I fall so far short.” “I will never measure up.” He cites a Sister Darla Isackson who “observed that Satan has somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations. For some he has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making”.
Elder Holland then articulates the standard Mormon explanation: we are not expected to be perfect now, but eventually. So we don’t have to feel miserable about not measuring up, at least not just yet. And in the end, it is the Savior who through his atonement makes perfection possible. So we must do all we can, but we must trust in the Lord’s grace in the final analysis.
But is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) really referring to a future time in the afterlife for this directive? I think not. A key element of the directive is “therefore,” a conjunctive adverb, which as the name suggests, links two independent clauses: “be perfect”, and the section that immediately precedes this directive. The “be perfect” clause cannot, therefore, be interpreted as a stand-alone instruction, as it has by generations of Mormon scholars and leaders. More than just a simple oversight, this in vacuo interpretation of the “be perfect” mandate robs it and what goes before of significance.
The Beatitudes occupy the first 20 verses of Matthew 5, but then Jesus launches into an itemization of 5 laws/commandments with a radical reinterpretation of each one. “You have heard it said” introduces the standard version, “but I say unto you” introduces the radical reinterpretation.
For example, for murder: Ye have heard that it was said …, thou shalt not kill, but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Matt 5:21-22). In this coupling, Jesus brings up a law for which it is easy to determine if one is obeying it or not, but then he puts unjustified anger in practically the same class as murder. And who can be sure they are living in accordance with this deeper aspect of the law? In the light of the radical reinterpretation, it is no longer quite so simple to claim complete obedience. This was exactly the purpose of all 6 of these couplings: look a little deeper into each of these commandments. Perhaps you will be found more wanting than you thought. There is no calming balm of “eventually” here.
And so on through the other 4: adultery-lust (v27-28); do not swear falsely—do not swear at all (v 33-34); an eye for an eye –turn the other cheek (v 38-39); love your neighbor, hate your enemy –love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (43-44).
These pairings of outward laws and inward re-examination are the prologue that is linked by the conjunctive adverb “therefore”, to the “be ye perfect” mandate. How does this change how we have thought about the latter clause, or the mandate of perfection?
At issue is the proper translation of “perfect.” In the Septuagint, the Greek word is teleios. This word occurs in a number of places in the Septuagint, as well as in the New Testament. The Hebrew word is tamim. Both teleios and tamim refer to wholeness or integrity or completeness.
Tying the mandate to be whole, or perhaps consistent, to the preamble or prologue contrasting shallower and deeper understandings of the law now makes perfect sense, so to speak. The Lord is asking his listeners to be people of integrity, to cleanse both the inner and the outer vessel.
The Lord, therefore, is not suggesting to us that “a certain degree of perfection is attainable in this life. …that we can be one hundred percent perfect, for instance, in abstaining from the use of tea and coffee. [That] we can be one hundred percent perfect in abstaining from liquor and tobacco, [and so on].” This is from a classic conference talk from 1950 cited here, and it appears to have guided subsequent interpretations of this passage down through the years.
But the Lord is most decidedly not making it easy. He is not interested in the least in a “certain degree of perfection.” He has in fact made it much more difficult. It is easy to know if I have murdered of not, but have I been angry without cause at my brother or sister? Here we all sin, we all fall short. But it remains uncertain and fuzzy. How angry is too angry? If I raise my voice just a little, am I behaving inconsistently with the law? I should think about this every day, especially when I get even a little angry. I can’t always be sure how short I fall, which makes it a little more difficult for me to be judgmental of others.
Sure I can be perfect in abstaining from tea and coffee, but is that the end of the matter? Clearly we are to examine all commandments or mandates, and reflect on the why and the what for, and not just take at face value any of the commandments. The Word of Wisdom is a good example of how we have collectively simplified this dietary law—we have done at least as well as the Pharisees. What might we find on closer examination of the Word of Wisdom? Perhaps a meditation on excessive consumption of meat and processed foods. Or perhaps the benefits of a largely vegetarian diet. Or any number of other things. The point is to consider the law, to recognize our own weaknesses, whatever they may be, and to be less judgmental about how other people might keep this law. Perhaps we judge those who smoke as we down the 8th sugary soda of the day.
Finally, there is another “be ye therefore” that we never hear about, and it is telling that we do not give this “be ye” as much attention as the perfect “be ye.” Luke 6:36 reads: Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. The “therefore” refers back to a similar pairing as we saw in Matthew 5:48. Merciful is sometimes translated as compassionate. Be ye therefore merciful or compassionate does not translate well at all into the Pharisaical check-list mode of gospel righteousness. In both Matthew 5 and Luke 6 the Lord is asking us for much more than a “certain degree or righteousness.” He is asking for us to remake ourselves in his image. To become in essence different people. To be full of loving kindness and charity. Wholly unattainable in this life? Of course! But when you have tasted just a bit of the pure love of Christ, then that opens up another vision. Checking off one item of perfection—no vision here. Only the drudgery of compliance.
We must of course keep the outer vessel clean. We need to comply with the law. But what we really need to do is to go and follow Him who is the embodiment of wholeness, mercy, and compassion. It is a whole other vision. Difficult, but rewarding now and in the end.