Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do notthe tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We live in an age of slogans. Memorable mottos, pithy political phrases, commercial catchwords are the foundational tools for effective communication. What is true of culture applies also to our faith. So I am not surprised when I am asked if Jesus’ preaching can be summed up in one sentence. Today, Christ gives us a particularly daunting challenge when he sums up the goal of discipleship: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christ’s purpose in preaching is to inspire the pursuit of perfection.
Yet we know that we often fall short of perfection. We are all sinners, we have our faults and weakness, so Christ’s call to be perfect seems radically impractical, if not impossible. After all, Christ himself says that he has not come “to call the righteous, but sinners.” This challenge of holiness does not seem to fit with the reality of our own fragility and God’s mercy. At first glance the expectation to be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect, is a bit of a head scratcher.
In order to understand what Jesus is saying, it is helpful to remember that the context of this preaching is the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses went up Mount Sinai in order to receive the Ten Commandments, so too Jesus ascends a mountain in order to give his first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel. The new commandments that Christ preaches make it clear that he is more than a simple law giver; he himself is the fulfillment of the law. Last week, we heard Jesus compare the Old Law not with new laws, but with himself, “you have heard that it was said…but I say to you….” Jesus is not just a spiritual teacher or social preacher; He identifies Himself as the Son of God. For this reason, Christ calls us not just to follow rituals and rules, but to be in a relationship with Him. To be perfect as God the Father is perfect is impossible, if we think it is the “11th commandment.”
That’s the point. There is no way that we can perfectly follow all the rules and live an impeccable life. One of the reasons for the law is for us to realize that we desperately need help. The help that God offers us is his grace, e.g., his love and mercy in our life. It is this grace that transforms us. Perfection is only possible to the extent that Christ comes alive in us. That’s the goal. Anything less falls short of God’s desire for our happiness.
Sometimes our idea of Jesus is that he was a wise man or dynamic preacher. Certainly, he was. But he was radically more. Jesus is the Son of God, who calls us to be part of his family. Our faith calls us not simply to follow a moral code of ethics, but to be transformed by God into a member of His family. Christ’s call to perfection reminds us that we not only need his grace in our lives, but that we are called to live as He did, to forgive as He forgives, be merciful as he is merciful, and to love even our enemies that we might be children of our Heavenly Father.
~ Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.