Reading Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism has given me in the past two posts some examples of how Christians can take a cue from Judaism on topics like action/belief and what it means to serve God within the larger society. I think there is much that Christians can learn from Jews, which is one reason why I wish there was more interaction between us.
This is not to say, however, that I am in favor of blurring the distinctions between our two belief systems. I don’t see Judaism has having it all together, which should be fairly obvious in that I’m not Jewish. There is one thing that Jews are missing, and Steinberg helpfully provides an opportunity to talk about this missing piece when he writes:
Judaism does not expect perfection from man. There are religions which insist that he achieve it or be lost … In this respect Judaism is mellower, more realistic. It thinks too well of God to portray Him as exacting impeccability from flesh and blood He has made frail. It is too insensible to ask that man walk but never slip. To the contrary it predicts that he will not only slip but fall also. Its guidance is directed to the end that he shall so walk as to fall as little as possible, and having fallen, will pick himself up, brush off the dust and go on, wiser, surer of himself and of the good he seeks. (89)
Most of the time when Steinberg refers to “those other religions” I think he means to implicitly refer primarily to Christianity. And he probably has in mind Matthew 5:48 (cf. 19:21), in which Jesus says to the crowds gathered around him on the hill: “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The first problem here is that I don’t believe it’s appropriate for Steinberg to have a view of Jesus as if he represents another religion. Jesus was a devoted Jew his entire life and spent practically all his time and energy teaching other Jews. It’s not exactly clear when “Christianity” can be used to refer to the movement that Jesus launched, but in my view it’s certainly not during Jesus’s ministry. In other words, it’s one of his own that Steinberg must face if he has a problem with the commandment to be “perfect.”
A clarification I would like to make before the next point is that we have become used to thinking of “perfect” as description of something that is completely flawless, something that is completely above and beyond the idea of ever being improved upon. In this view, God is the only thing that can truly be called perfect. But “perfect” has historically referred to that which is complete, and the word translated “perfect” here in Matthew is a word which can definitely be translated “complete.” It is related to the word for “end,” or “goal.” Jesus taught that we would be perfected and whole, just as our Father has always been perfect and whole.
The other problem is that Christianity, while it anticipates perfection (or completion) and “impeccability,” it expects that man will “slip.” Just for one example, look at Paul’s letters. The recipients of those letters were definitely meant to aim for the goal of being perfect, complete human beings but the reason Paul must write to them is that they are not able to be perfect, at least not yet. And Paul would certainly say the same is true of him. That goal lies in the future, and Paul talks about in passages like 1 Cor 15, Philippians 3, and 1 Thess 4. (None of which are about a “rapture”; all of which are about being renewed humans in God’s renewed world. Dare I say “perfect” humans in a “perfect” world?)
The reason why Jesus can tell his fellow Jews that they must be perfect, and the reason why Christians, as part of that same story, must be perfect is that when all is said and done this perfection is not grounded in the determination or accomplishment of man but rather in the gracious and saving action of God.
Otherwise, I would agree with Steinberg. It in fact would not be “realistic” and it would be “insensible” for God to expect frail humanity to be perfect on its own.
What changes everything is that God himself becomes the perfect humanity that he requires.
It is in Jesus that humans become everything that they were meant to be, and, it is in Jesus that God becomes everything he needs to be to fulfill his promises to humanity. In Jesus God himself is faithful to humanity, who at the same time and in the same way becomes the faithful humanity that God requires.
To me, this is the most beautiful and awesome truth about the story of this God and this world. This is why Christology is the deepest, most complex, and most astounding aspect of biblical theology.