“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 NASB
Perfect – It will come as no great shock to you that none of us can meet this standard. No one is perfect. In fact, it seems quite obvious that no human being is capable of being perfect. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we make theological exceptions for Yeshua. He just isn’t ordinary. All the rest of us have at one time or another acted less than perfectly. But if this is so, why would Yeshua set the standard so high that none of us can reach it? If He knew all human beings sin, why would He demand the impossibility of perfection?
Before you jump to the doctrine of depravity bequeathed to us by Augustine and Calvin, remember that no one in the audience on the day Yeshua gave this lesson had ever heard of those two men. In fact, no one in that audience probably ever heard of Plato who started the whole depravity problem in the first place. Remember also that Yeshua is thoroughly versed in the Tanakh. His allusion in this statement is to Leviticus 19:2 where the proper key word is not “perfect” but rather “holy.” We have looked at the differences between these two concepts in the past, but today let’s pay attention to the implications of this correction for our concept of Man. Heschel sums it up nicely:
“The notion of human perfection, which made its way into the literature of Israel in the Middle Ages, is an alien growth in the Jewish vineyard, one that bears flowers but no fruit.” In a footnote, Gordon Tucker comments, “[Human perfection] is nice to contemplate but provides no useful moral guidance.” Think about these statements for a moment. Put aside the theological debate about depravity and sinful nature. Just think about the impact that the idea of human perfection has had on us.
First, it drives us to despair. How do you like living in a world where you can never be good enough? Isn’t that reassuring? It isn’t much consolation to be told that this is all a test of your faith. Frankly, if God designed the planet so that we are intended to constantly fail in order to recognize our sinfulness, then I’m not sure I want to worship that kind of god. That kind of god is much more like the pagan gods of the ancient Near East or the Greeks than the God of intimate, heartbroken compassion that I find in the Tanakh.
Second, a doctrine (for that is what it is) of human perfection, even as an ideal, reshapes the way we think of progress, politics and personality. It supports the idea of social evolution (see devolving). It suggests that human beings are capable of reaching utopia. It views all defects as disease, capable of being overcome by the application of reason. It classifies the biblical theme of the sinful heart as an outmoded myth. Imagine how much psychological abuse has occurred as a result of believing that people should be perfect. Then consider how differently you would view the world – and yourself – if you seriously took to heart the idea that human beings are supposed to progress toward holiness – toward being completely set aside for God’s purposes. Now you might understand why the sages taught that we are to serve God with both the yetzer ha’tov and the yetzer ha’ra. To eliminate the yetzer ha’ra is to erase God’s image in us! The idea of human perfection (not human holiness) is blasphemy. It amounts to saying that God’s image in human beings is not good.
Perfect? No way! But progressing toward godliness. Yes, that’s the goal. “Be holy, for I, YHWH am holy.”
Topical Index: perfect, holy, teleios, Matthew 5:48, Leviticus 19:2, human perfection
 Abraham Heschel, Heavenly Torah, p. 505.