Why ‘Be Perfect’ Isn’t an Impossible Request
User's Guide to Sunday, Feb. 23
Sunday, Feb. 23, is the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, Cycle II).
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Today’s Gospel ends with the famous line, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That line has caused a lot of trouble in Christian circles.
It has convinced some people that the Gospels call us to an unattainable ideal.
This line has convinced others that perfection, in the sense of flawlessness, is possible. Some people have tried very, very hard to be perfect, only to end in failure and discouragement.
To understand what the point of this line is, we must look at the context. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Be perfect.” He uses the phrase to finish a whole list of instructions.
Specifically, he says:
“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.”
Jesus points out that sinners are kind to their friends and family and their like-minded acquaintances. If we are proud of ourselves for serving our fellow Catholics/other Christians only, we need to realize that this is not the charity we are called to. If we are counting it a great act of love for us to serve people in our neighborhood or our family, whom it would actually be a scandal not to serve, we need to rethink that, too.
Our standard is different because it is God the Father’s standard. He serves everyone. So we should do as he does: Be perfect as God is perfect.
Which brings us to the word “perfect.” Another good place to look, besides biblical context, when the Bible throws us for a loop is a good dictionary.
What does this word really mean? It is clear Jesus is not asking us to be perfect in every way that the Father is perfect: He is purity itself and the essence of being. We couldn’t be perfect in those ways if we tried.
Yes, one meaning of perfect is, according to Merriam Webster, “being entirely without fault or defect: flawless.”
But there are many other senses in which the word can be taken — then and now: “satisfying all requirements”; “expert, proficient”; “pure, total”; “lacking in no essential detail”; “complete” and “unmitigated.”
In light of these meanings, we are called to be perfect followers of Christ by satisfying all requirements of being Christlike, giving pure hearts to him through our words and actions and by having an unmitigated desire to love all.
St. Paul even says so. In our second reading, he says to “become a fool, so as to become wise.” He says the worldly “perfect” people don’t please him: “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”
In practice, the perfect love we are called to has always been the call of God. Moses heard the same advice, after all:
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: 'Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.' … Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Today’s Gospel advice to be perfect is a call to love how God loves — and that means loving our friends, our neighbors and even our enemies because he does.
Tom and April Hoopes write from
Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is
writer in residence at Benedictine College.
Image via Flickr Share Alike license
- Feb. 23-March 8, 2014