Perfection? Really? A Reflection from Matthew 5:48

If you have been a fan of Downton Abbey, or other television or literary fare that portrays nobility and their servants, you are well aware of the contrast of what happens upstairs where everything is presented in perfect symmetry, and what happens downstairs where the trash must be disposed of and where the coal dust and sewage gather. Something similar happens when you do some fine dining. Linen tablecloths, atmospheric lighting, carefully prepared recipes and meticulously attired serving staff appear on one side of the swinging door to the kitchen. And what exists behind it?  Rinds, soiled cloths, garbage and empty boxes.

Or consider what it takes to create a perfect performance, one that draws standing ovations for incredible dexterity, vocal beauty, or visual delights. Prior to that incredible, memory-making moment comes falls, failure, a frequent being passed over during auditions, and repeated mistakes.

We do our best to create the simulation of perfection, but it is always built on something that has to be destroyed or hidden or lived beyond.

Q. Can you identify other ways the appearance of perfection is built off the consumption of something or someone else?

How does this show up in your life?

How does this show up in your enterprise?

We all have some idea of perfection. Some folks strive for it. They mourn when what they wanted “to be perfect” is not. Nothing less suits them and they are frequently disappointed. Others despair over whether perfection can be achieved and perhaps stop trying altogether. Whichever side of that line we fall, the perfection marker remains in front of us and we are well aware that we cannot measure up, that our perfect moments are built on imperfect ones, and that we cannot maintain them once they’ve begun.

So, when we hear these words from Jesus in Matthew 5:48  that we should be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, it does not sound like an encouragement. It doesn’t sound like it fits with the gospel message of grace that forgives our imperfection and lets us hope to return to God. We simply do not know what to do with it.


Q. Where do you land? Are you mostly disappointed or mostly in despair when it comes to perfection?

The Sermon on the Mount would be easier to hear and respond to if Jesus’ words did not include the standard of perfection. We could then hear them as a call to try, even with the higher standard that Jesus offers.  We would hear it as “you don’t need to swear by anything because your word should be enough.”  We would hear, “Vengeance is a dead-end, try letting someone else’s anger run its course, even if you are its victim rather than adding fuel to their fire.” We would hear, “work at loving your enemy rather than putting your energy into hate.” If the words of Jesus did not hold up the standard of perfection trying would be enough. Grace would cover our mistakes. We could pick ourselves up and give it another go. We would try to hold to what we know to be good for a longer period of time each time we begin again.

And yet, Jesus seems to tell us that trying is not enough. Perfection is what we should be because we reflect God. God is all these things Jesus calls us to be. How in the world do we begin to understand this saying, find it to be hopeful, and claim it joyfully rather than collapse into despair?

(1) Let’s start with the Greek word Jesus uses for perfection. As so often is the case, a word does not fully convey its meaning when moving from the original to a translation. He uses a word related to telos, which  means “the end.”  To understand this more fully, we have to understand that the Greeks had multiple words for time (chronos, kairos and telos)  just as they had multiple words for love (philia, eros and agape).  Chronos refers to a specific moment in time, its flow, the ticking of seconds. Kairos refers to a moment of special magnitude, an auspicious moment. Telos refers to the end of time, the culmination.

Jesus is saying that we need to represent the end state, the culmination of maturity, the completion of the transforming work that God is doing within us. This is a perfection that is NOT built from something that is destroyed. Rather it is built OUT OF what would otherwise know destruction. It is a return to a purpose rather than a triumph at someone else’s tragedy.

It cannot be done perfectly at all times, but we can represent it, call for it, and emulate it to the best of our ability.


Q. Identify an arena in your life where you are

much transformed from what you used to be.

(2) And let’s look to the subject that Jesus holds forth — that of doing what God does. God offers grace where imperfection reigns. According to the Sermon on the Mount God holds a high standard for moral behavior and peacemaking—one that cannot be achieved on one’s own. And what is this moral behavior and peacemaking used for? It is used for showing grace to people who do not deserve it necessarily. And neither do we! We have been shown grace in our imperfection, so we need to represent God as show-ers of grace to others in theirs. And when we do we represent the perfection of God.

(3) And finally let’s look at Jesus’ statement about perfection itself. God is the perfect one. The perfection we point to by living toward our maturity, the perfection to which our lives point, is God’s perfection, not ours.

If we reflect on this a bit more, we can find hope for our journey.

  • We don’t have to be stalled by petty and imperfect matters that surround us. They always will be there so our one choice is whether we respond in grace or nastiness. And nastiness isn’t just acting like a brute. Nastiness can also be a cold distance. Sometimes nastiness is simply a haughty sniff.
  • We can gain perspective on the struggles of our lives - even the severe ones.  Jesus speaks these words to people, most of who lived downstairs, on the kitchen side of the swinging door, who knew the trash heaps far better than gilded rooms. It is to them, those who will listen, that he invites toward perfection. The audience of naysayers who sometimes surrounded him believed that the trappings of their lives were a sufficient substitute even though their wealth and pretend perfection were built upon the oppression of others.

By any reasonable measure, we are people who live upstairs. We are the diners in the restaurant. We are the ones who believe a perfect performance is possible and expected. We are the ones who join the Pharisees and rulers of old, believing that our lives should be perfect no matter who pays the price for our benefit. We are the ones who whine and complain and demand someone pay for it when we are not pleased or service has not been rendered properly. We are the ones who pout, get in a funk or have a snit when something does not go well. It’s hard to embrace the perfection Jesus invites when we are too busy pretending to be perfect ourselves.


Q. Who will you be? A person pretending to be perfect? A person defeated?

A person of grace, pointing to the perfected grace of God?

If it is to be a person of grace, how will you do it?