Just like the word holy, the word perfect is one that always makes me cringe a bit because I know that there is not going to be any easy, straightforward way to translate it into Enga. The Greek word that is often translated as perfect is teleios. Like most words, the range of meaning of the Greek is not quite the same as the range of meaning in English. In English the word perfect carries the idea of something that is done without any mistakes. A perfect grade is one in which the student scores 100% and does not get any of the answers wrong. But the connotation of the Greek word teleios has much more to do with the idea of being complete than it does with the idea of not making any mistakes. So it would refer more to the idea of a student completing every assignment required for a particular class than it would to the idea that the assignments were completed without any mistakes.
A great example to illustrate the difference between the idea of completeness as opposed to the idea of not making any mistakes is Matthew 5:48 in which Jesus exhorts his disciples, saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” When we approach this command from the perspective of the English connotation of the word perfect, we think that Jesus is commanding us to never make even the slightest mistake as we go about our walk of faith. If that is indeed what Jesus is saying, then it is an impossible command. But I don’t think the Lord Jesus is in the business of giving us commands that he knows we are incapable of ever following.
However, when we consider the Greek connotation of the word teleios, we see a different emphasis emerging, especially as we look at the greater context of the passage. The greater context of Matthew 5:43-48 clarifies that Jesus is telling us, as his disciples, to love our enemies. And he encourages us to do so by reminding us that our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In other words, the emphasis is on the fact that God is complete in showing his love. He doesn’t show love only to the good and the just; he shows love to the evil and the unjust as well. He does not neglect to love anyone; he is complete in how he loves people.
Jesus further illustrates this point by telling us that if we only love those who love us, we are no better than tax collectors. Rather we are to be complete in showing love, not only to our friends, but also to our enemies. Jesus is not commanding us never to make a mistake in our attempts to love others. Rather, he is commanding us to be complete by not neglecting anyone, but rather showing love even to our enemies.
So how do we translate Jesus’s command to be perfect/complete in a language like Enga, which does not have an abstract noun for perfection or completeness? It is a challenge to do so. In our first attempt to translate Matthew 5:48, we came up with the following:
Your Father who stands in the sky loves bad people and good people alike; therefore live in such a way that you love [people] doing likewise.
That was a good translation in terms of capturing the heart of what it means to be perfect or complete, but we felt that it inserted too much interpretation into the text so that we were no longer translating the text but explaining it. Sometimes this is a necessary step in the translation process so that you can truly understand the heart of the message. But we were not content to stick with an explanation rather than a translation, so we went back to the drawing board, considering how we might translate more literally while also capturing the idea of completeness rather than the idea of not making mistakes. This is our revised translation:
Your Father who stands on top of the sky lives in such a way that he does not neglect any of the straight ways, but rather he holds to them; therefore live in such a way that you are doing the same.
The idea is that God is complete in the sense that he does not neglect any good thing that he should do. He is complete in doing all that he should do. Therefore, we should behave in the same way, not neglecting to do all that we should do. It doesn’t mean that we are commanded never to make a mistake, but it does mean that we commanded not to be incomplete in how we carry out the commandments of God. To be sure, God does not make any mistakes, but the heart of Jesus's command is for us to strive to be complete in our love.
May we be complete in loving others, extending our love even to our enemies.