7th Sunday_ Year A
“You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Mt 5:48
In the gospel text of today, as Jesus continues his ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ he reiterates, “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In other words, Jesus is inviting us to imitate God himself, and in the words of the Evangelist Matthew: to be perfect! What does Jesus mean? What does ‘perfection’ mean?
It is so easy to mistake perfection for legalistic order. In an attempt to be perfect, many fervent people could become overly obsessed with maintaining order in themselves and in others. These are the ‘saints’ who are difficult to live with. Such people tend to become so intolerant of others in the Christian community; they pretend to know absolutely what Christian life is all about; and they reduce Christian life to a set of laws and disciplinary procedures. Actually, examining myself I see such tendencies in my own self. And this is a temptation to reduce the deep principles proposed by Jesus to some easy rules and regulations.
So what does perfection mean? What does Jesus mean when he invites us to imitate the perfection of his Father?
Perfection is holiness
In line with the Jewish tradition that the Gospel of Matthew is attempting to safeguard, while also proposing a development, Mt 5:48 could be better understood in the light of what we hear read in the first reading of today from the Book of Leviticus. Jesus seems to echo the words that are already found in the Torah: “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). Perfection then can simply be understood as holiness. Simple enough! Rightly so, the 2nd Vatican Council spoke about “the universal call to holiness.” That is, holiness is a task and a gift extended not just to some special people in the church, but to all followers of Jesus. In other words, ‘call to holiness’ is a simple expression of the injunction of Jesus: “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But what is holiness, anyway? Again, the understanding of holiness runs the risk of falling into the vicious cycle of discipline, order, and obedience to law. I would like to understand holiness in terms of wholeness, integration, health or wellbeing. God is holy, because he is complete and whole! While talking about the growth of Jesus during his adolescence, the Evangelist Luke would summarize it in a simple, but a deep, sentence: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). Here I see Luke talking about growth of Jesus in the four aspects of the human person: intellectual, physical, spiritual and the socio-emotional dimensions. To me, growth in these four aspects is what human holiness consists in. And of course, this growth is a process and a life-long task.
Perfection is compassion
Closely related to this, and not much different from the understanding of perfection as holiness is what we see in the Lukan version of the injunction of Jesus that we are reflecting on: “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:36, NJB) or as some other translations have it, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36, RSV).
And what is the compassion of God? Matthew elaborates this in the gospel text of today: “for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike” (Mt 6:45).
In the Kingdom of God that is built on compassion, there is a loving tolerance of disorder and even evil, at least until the right time: the weed is allowed to grow with the wheat (Mt 13:24-30); the tree that has not borne fruit yet is given another opportunity to grow and become fruitful (Lk 13:6-9). And people are rewarded in the Kingdom of God, not according to retributive justice, but on the basis of sheer generosity (Mt 20:1-16). The apparent randomness in this decision making process (where the last will be first) is only directed by compassion.
This is the perfection that we are invited to imitate. I would have found it easier to follow some clear-cut rules in my life. But Jesus tells me that perfection lies beyond rules, because compassion is life-enhancing. And I find this challenging!
Fr Franco Pereira SDB