SEVENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (A)
Today we have one of those gospel readings that, if we are paying attention, should bother us a little bit. Jesus says to us in today's reading (Mt 5:38-48), "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Wow. I will admit, when I first came across that passage in my early studies of Christianity, I was more than a little bothered. I was quite a bit bothered! How could Jesus demand perfection from us? As the Son of God, don't you think He would know that perfection is not possible? Not for us fallen human beings? Why would He demand something of us that He knows we will not be able to achieve. He sets the bar too high.
I grew up all my life hearing the phrase, "Nobody's perfect." So you aren't too good at basketball... nobody's perfect. So you didn't get an A on that test... nobody's perfect. So you aren't the smartest kid in class... nobody's perfect. So you can't draw a stick figure to save your life... nobody's perfect. So you have bad acne... nobody's perfect. So you are nearsighted and need glasses... nobody's perfect. So you have to wear hearing aides... nobody's perfect. So you are in wheelchair... nobody's perfect. So you come from a broken home... nobody's perfect. So your family was evicted and now you are homeless... nobody's perfect.
What is Jesus thinking by commanding us to all be perfect? Why set such an unattainable goal? We can work our entire lives and never be the best at everything, all the time. We can never be perfect.
What is Jesus thinking? Jesus is thinking with the mind of God, and not the mind of man. St. Paul tells us today in his first letter to the Corinthians that "the wisdom of this world is foolish in the eyes of God." The wisdom of this world looks for perfection in ways that ultimately do not matter. God looks for perfection not in our skills or talents, our knowledge or our expertise, our good looks or our social position. God looks for perfection where it counts.
In our first reading today from Leviticus, God says to Moses, "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy." Note how closely this command parallels what Jesus commands us. Perfection in God's eyes is not perfection in any of these worldly arenas that will pass away. Perfection in God's eyes is holiness. By commanding us to be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus is commanding us to be holy.
So what is holiness? Jesus tells us in today's gospel that holiness means not only loving your friends, but also loving your enemies. You might describe holiness as an abundance of love. Look up "holy" in any dictionary and the definition will be something to the effect of being good, but always in connection with God. In other words, it is not "good" as the world defines good, but as God does. And so it is with perfection.
Christ never makes any demands of us that are impossible. God always provides for us the means to fulfill our obligations to Him. God commands us to be perfect - to be holy - and He also provides us with the tools to achieve that perfection. The process of becoming holy is called sanctification. Christ left His Church with the tools to help sanctify the faithful, to make us more holy and draw us closer to God. I am speaking of the sacraments. Christ gave us baptism, that rebirth through water and the Holy Spirit that marks us as children of God (Jn 3:5). Christ gave the Church the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18), the authority to forgive sins (Jn 20:23) through sacramental confession, to reconcile us to God when we sin. And Christ gave us His very flesh to eat, and His blood to drink, so that we may gain eternal life (Jn 6:54). I speak, of course, of the Eucharist.
Through baptism we die and rise with Christ, and are marked forever as God's children. Confession and the Eucharist are the daily bath and daily bread of the Christian, keeping us clean and drawing us closer to God. All of the sacraments are conduits of God's grace. All of them are occasions where God reaches out to us, helping us to become more holy, more perfect. But the sacraments are not magic. God gives His grace, but we must use that gift in order for it to come to fruition. St. Augustine said that, "God created us without our help, but He does not save us without our help."
The sacraments generally are celebrated in a church, because they are gifts of the Church. But they should not remain in the church. We are meant to take those gifts out into the world. What benefit is it for you to enter the church, receive the sacraments, and make a pious show while you are in the pews, and then go out and hate your neighbor? Cheat on your exams? Lie about a friend? Hold a grudge? Disrespect others? If you do so, you may have received God's grace, but you are casting that gift aside.
We are told in today's readings both to love our neighbors and our enemies. We are given examples of how to do this. Take no revenge. Don't hold a grudge. Because these things do not harm your enemy but yourself. They allow hatred and evil to find a home in your heart. God, in our reading from Leviticus today tells us not to "incur sin" because of someone else's wrong doing. When we hold hatred in our hearts towards others, we sin ourselves. We allow someone else's sin to become our own.
We are not called to hate. We are called to love - even those who would hate us. This can often be hard, admittedly. But after all, Jesus does not command us to, "try your best," or "give it a shot." He commands us to "be perfect." And that's hard. But it's not impossible. God loves us, and He made us to be holy. Jesus is only expecting us to become the holy people we were created to be, the perfect version of ourselves. So He knows, better than anyone, that we can achieve this goal. It's what we were made for. He will help us get there. We need only trust in Him, rely on Him, stay close to Him, and He will show us the path to perfection.