Editor's Postlude: Is a Perfect Jesus Necessary?

July 06, 2022

Hung on the wall behind the pulpit in the church where I grew up was Warner E. Sallman’s painting Head of Christ, always in view as we listened to our minister. As a child, what I saw was a meek Jesus, with white skin and blue eyes looking heavenward, beard trimmed and perfectly washed dark blond hair flowing over his shoulders. It was a “perfect” Jesus. Only later did I begin to wonder, How did Jesus keep his hair so perfectly washed, long before shampoo and conditioner?And then, as my world view and reading of scripture began to extend, Why would Jesus have blue eyes and white skin, since he was Middle-Eastern Jew? And why was he portrayed as meek?

The idea that Jesus must be perfect has taken many twists and turns through the centuries. For some, Jesus could not have had bowel movements or would not have needed to urinate, since that would have destroyed his perfection. For others, Jesus could never have been married or engaged in sexual intercourse, because that would have sullied him and made him less than perfect.For others, Jesus had to have white skin and blue eyes to make him perfect.

All of this then leads us to ask, “What does ‘perfect’ mean?” The answer to that is clear. Perfection is what the person, or dominant culture, defining it understands to be perfect. And so it has been through history. Women’s menses, a skin colour, a body that was considered too fat or too thin, a gender identity or sexual expression that was not considered the norm, a perceived lack or deformity in body, mind, or spirit—all of these have been considered “not perfect” and therefore were censured in some way, even though the person could do nothing to make themselves more in line with this “perfect.”

As a teenager, I latched on to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It seemed like a good goal to embrace as a young person who was enthusiastic about following Jesus. But I soon discovered that I couldn’t live up to such a goal. I easily saw my own shortcomings. I anticipated what others would perceive as my faults. It was a losing battle. So why did Jesus say that!

Most English translations of the Bible render this verse as “Be perfect, just like your heavenly Father.” But what is the Greek word that is translated this way? τέλειοι (téleioi)is the word, and it relates to the Hebrew word תָּמִים (tamím),which means “completeness, finished, lacking nothing.” But let’s add in how Greek philosophers (who had great influence in Jesus’ time) understood perfect. They defined perfection as something that was fully living or serving its intended function or purpose.

Now that opens a whole new door. To be perfect is not to look perfect or function perfectly according to the human standards set by a particular (dominant) culture at a particular time in history. To be perfect is to fully live our intended purpose given to us as God’s beloved. To be perfect is to find completion in the love of God, just as we are. And the stories of Jesus are filled with this kind of completion: the lost sheep, lost son, and lost coin, children, widows, and those living with leprosy, shunned Samaritans and tax collectors, Greeks and Romans, and bent-over, menstruating women of every culture and skin colour. All were welcomed as full and complete participants in the kin(g)dom of God Jesus proclaimed.

My young adult son declared to me one day, “I am not attracted to a perfect Jesus.” He went on to explain that a perfect Jesus would not understand all that humans go through. For him, a perfect Jesus could not truly be “Emmanuel—God with us” because he just wouldn’t understand.

How true! I don’t need a perfect Jesus, but I am delighted to follow Jesus, who embraced and fully lived his God-given purpose and showed me the way to embrace who I am as a child of God and to follow my God-given purpose. If that is perfection, then I’m all in.

Susan Lukey, Editor