What we we think is perfection, and what Jesus and the ancients meant by it, are different. When he said, “Be perfect, even as God is perfect,” he did not mean without error; or, as some have assumed, as merely complete in who you are (as if one’s own uniqueness is different from another’s, and that everyone needs to only be true to their own selves).
He was thinking of the Greek understanding of moral/ethical perfection where one was made a complete/whole/perfected person who was a living exemplar of the unity of the virtues.
This concept is nonsensical to modern thinkers who assume that there is not a unity/compatibility of the virtues. Whereas we see dichotomies between virtues like justice and compassion, the ancients believed that wisdom (as contrasted with sophism) is able to guide the various virtues to work in collaboration towards the same end/telos.
The Greeks used the word teleios to express the unity and wholeness of living in accordance with virtue (i.e., ethical character). (See Aristotle’s, Nichomachaen Ethics, for more detail).
It was a joint moral, intellectual, and spiritual term that reflected the symbiosis and synergy of a complete/fulfilled human being, i.e., one who had reached their proper end/goal in life.
Jesus borrowed heavily from this virtue ethic tradition that preceded him, and he synthesized it into his Hebrew spiritual understandings.
It was believed that anyone who cultivated and habituated the virtues in their lives would get to the point where they were whole/complete human beings living in accordance with their cosmic end/destiny.
A person reached this state of being when the virtues governed one’s life; not out of duty, but joy. One could no longer be tempted by non-virtuous or vice-laden concerns affiliated with one’s individual will (since one’s will was now only to live the good/virtuous life unswayed by self-interests).
Jesus took this notion and incorporated it into Hebrew theology, telling us that this is what it means to have the Holy Spirit living within us. We do God’s will (i.e., what accords with God’s virtues and values) as our new nature. We want to do it, and it is our joy to do it.
We are born above/anew when we have had our character shaped by the virtues of the Holy Spirit, in which there is no error (due to the unity and harmony of the virtues interacting with one another).
This understanding of perfection in virtue did not assume we wouldn’t make intellectual, physical, or social mistakes, but only that morally/ethically/spiritually speaking we would have pure motives and actions that derived from the virtues working together within us.
Non-virtuous persons might, of course, misinterpret our behaviors, but that is a result of their not understanding and experiencing the harmonization of the virtues (i.e., the way of the Holy Spirit) — which is precisely why Jesus was misjudged and killed. And it is why he forgave them while on the cross, for they did not know, given their lack of moral development, what they were doing; plus, it was in his nature -due to his cultivation of God’s virtues and values- to forgive and be compassionate.
This virtue-based concept of perfection has connections, too, with the Buddhist concept of “skill-in-means” and the Taoist concept of wu wei.
In Buddhism, one who has become a bodhisattva has become enlightened and incorporated the virtues so as to act only for the well-being of others rather than oneself, taking into consideration who they are, their cultural context, etc. Thus a bodhisattva may act differently towards various people given where they’re from and who they are rather than from a rigid, absolutistic, or universal principle that is naively applied to all in the same way.
In Taoism one becomes one with the Tao not by uncompromising principles that are always followed, but through a process of non-effort/non-work in which one fluidly flows through life by maintaining virtue while adjusting oneself for various circumstances. Like water does not have to destroy a rock in its path to get around it, so too in life we take a path of non-resistance and nonviolence in order to stay one with all things.
In all of these ancient philosophies, there was an understanding that virtue and perfection were not static, rigid, uncompromising, absolutistic, or even universally applicable. Being good did not equate to living by moral principles in which we could never deviate, but rather to wisely consider all the circumstances and act in accordance to what the unity of virtues guides one to do in each situation.
Thus showing compassion for a child may look quite different from showing compassion for an adult. What a person from a different culture, religion, or era may consider to be kindness may vary, so wisdom must guide the virtues (and is indeed integral to them).
We could learn a lot from their moral adaptability and flexibility. Our literalism, dogmatism, absolutism, and exclusivism have drained the wisdom from our ethics, and has made our current understandings of perfection untenable.
— Rev. Bret S. Myers, 2/26/2018