How can we be perfect?

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. "You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Brothers and sisters: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: God catches the wise in their own ruses, and again: The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.

Matthew 5:38-48

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 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."

Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of last Sunday’s reading, the series which were known as antitheses of the “counsels of perfection”. The series began with contrasting declarations from Jesus who juxtaposed His own demands on the Mosaic Law. Of the six antitheses, these last two may well be considered the climaxes of perfection as they require a mode of conduct that goes beyond fundamental requirement of the moral law and normal human behaviour. But they were so well known that these sayings of Jesus——-“turn the other cheek”, “go an extra mile” and “love your enemies”——-have become idioms in our everyday lives and the yardsticks of how “nice” one truly is. Why then do such radical and harsh demands find their way into our everyday language? Could it be something that lies behind these demands that touches our human hearts, something transcendent, something that is beautiful, good and true?

We all are, more or less, governed by a set of moral law which provides a basic framework for human relationship in the society. By observing and practising what is required, we can be regarded basically as “good people” in the strict human sense. There is nothing “wrong” about such a way of living. But as Christians, moral law is only a mean not an end in our relationship with our fellowmen and with God. It is a foundation for us to develop more fully that relationship which is more than a matter of “meeting the requirement”. Here is what Jesus challenges us: a call to transform from “nice people” to “holy people”, a call to perfect from “good people” to “saintly people”, a call to share God’s likeness, to participate in His own life and love, a call to become more beautiful, better and truer, something deep inside that the human heart yearns for (rf St Augustine, Conf. 1, 1, 1:PL 32, 659-661, Ps 42:1-2; 63: 1).

But how can we be perfect as human beings who are much less than the “Father who is perfect” (Mt 5:48), the infinite and omnipotent God? Dear friends, do not be discouraged by Jesus’ call for perfection. Relying only on our own efforts, it is an impossible task but Jesus knows our weaknesses and limitations, all He wants is our unswerving trust in Him and our perseverance in trying for “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26) and “nothing shall be impossible with [Him]” (Lk 1:37).

“Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none” (St Gregory of Nyssa, De vita Mos.: PG 44, 300D).

Posted: February 19, 2017

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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