After processing the Book of the Gospels around the sanctuary accompanied by the beautiful sounds of the Liturgical Alleluia sung by the faithful, I stepped up to the ambo and proclaimed “The Lord be with you”. They responded, “And also with you”. I continued, “A Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew”, and they responded “Glory to You, Oh Lord”. Then I read these startling words:
“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.
“Jesus said to his disciples: “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 not the 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.” (St. Matthew 5: 38 – 48)
I lifted my eyes from the page and intoned, “”The Gospel of the Lord”, to which the faithful responded, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” These responses, both at the beginning and at the end of the reading of the Gospel at Holy Mass, affirm the power and the source of what I call “startling” words. They come from the Risen Lord Himself. They are not negotiable, nor are they some sort of impossible ideal. They are intended to become the lifestyle of all who bear the name Christian and have been baptized into His Body, the Church. Every time I read them I am drawn to repentance because I realize how far I am from the witness of life which they demand.
“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect“. This admonition is repeated in other Gospel accounts and developed in several New Testament Epistles. Perhaps our problem with responding to the passage lies in one of the limitations that Jesus came to overcome. We do not understand who we have been created -and now are being re-created in Christ – to become. Because we do not understand the meaning of the word, we fail to grasp the call to participation and freedom contained in this wonderful invitation to conversion and transformation.
Filtering this word through our linguistic limitations, we may fail to even attempt to respond to the invitation and miss the grace of conversion needed to actually live the call to love. In Greek, the word is telios. Telios refers to something being completed, brought to its full purpose, potential and intended vocation. For example, in the world of objects, a hammer is telios or perfect when it is hammering a nail. In the world of subjects, persons are telios or perfect when they are fulfilling their nature. The Latin in its verb form is perficere which helps us as well. It means “to make completely or to bring to completion” and we derive the English word “perfect” from it.
We are called to live lives of perfect(ed) love. In Jesus Christ, we are now capacitated, to use a term frequently used by the early father and Bishop Ireneaus of Lyons, recapitulated – made capable – od oing so by the grace of His Redemption. We can love as God loves. Until we respond to this invitation with both our words and our actions, we will not be complete. In our Western minds, we limit this word “perfect” and fail to grasp its promise and potential. We equate it with being sinless, in the sense of never again making a wrong choice.
However, the word is applied to Jesus by the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 5:8-9), “who was made perfect through what He suffered”. Jesus was without sin. How then was He perfected? He came into the world to redeem, to transform us all by His Incarnation, His saving Life, Death and Resurrection. His was and is a Way of perfect sacrificial love. He fulfilled His purpose when He presided over the new creation from the Altar of that Cross and robbed death of its victory in that Empty tomb.Soon, He will return to bring the New Creation to completion!
WE who bear the name Christian are being perfected – changed, converted and made capable of loving as God loves - precisely so the mission of Jesus can continue through His Church until He returns. As we embrace this invitation and allow His divine life to “perfect” us, we prove ourselves to be sons and daughters of His Father. This is what he said to Mary of Magdala just before he ascended, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ (John 20:17) Jesus taught that what is most important in our life in Him is to grow in the love that is called charity (Mt 22:35-40; Mk 12:28-31). St. Paul instructs “But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14); “Love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom 13:10); “So there abide faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13).
When we follow Jesus – in both word and deed – a dynamic process takes place within us. We are made complete, telios, perfected inthis love of charity. We begin to change into the new men and women that He capacitated us to become. His life is replicated in each one of us, and together, as His Risen Body, His Church, He continues His mission through us. St. Paul proclaimed to the Christians in Corinth “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17); and the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.(Gal 2:20). His insights so rich, “We have died, and our life is now hidden with Christ in God”. We have “put on the new self”, which is “being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.” (Col. 3).
The Christian Way of Life is dynamic not static. It is a call to continual conversion, a call to the perfection of charity. We now fulfill our purpose; we grow in perfection, by carrying on His life of redemptive love and loving even those who do not love us. We also continue His great work of Redemption which He will complete upon His return. Then, the entire creation will be reconstituted by love, made perfect, and handed back to the Father as a perfect gift of love. Let hear this invitation not with fear and trepidation, but with living faith: “Be perfect” and learn to walk in Jesus, along the Way of Love.