Jesus told His followers to “be perfect.” Is that even possible?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mt 5:38-48)
In His extended teaching to His followers in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called them to a remarkable way of life. It is helpful to understand the historical context for this session on the mountain. In the Old Testament, when Moses assembled the Israelites at Mt. Sinai after their deliverance from Egypt, God came down on the mountain to meet with them in a physical presence of fire, smoke, and loud thunder. He “spoke” the Ten Commandments to His people, giving them a radically new way to live. It was “new” in the sense that no nation had codified behavior like this, but, in fact, it was how God originally designed man to live, before the Fall. In that sense, it was primordially ancient. When Jesus sat with His followers and taught them, He fulfilled that Old Testament typology as He gave them the new (yet ancient) Law of Love, made possible in the New Covenant He would seal in His own blood. What would it require of them?
As Jesus begins to unfold this Law of Love, we can see how radical it is. He quotes the Old Testament maxim, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (see Ex 21:24). This law was given to limit retribution for a wrong, not to incite it. Jesus tells His followers to forget about retribution and vengeance. In fact, He asks the unthinkable of them: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” Why?
Quoting another Old Testament maxim, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” Jesus gets to the heart of what is new in the Law of Love. He tells His disciples that the goal of life in the kingdom of God is much larger than simply efficiently managing human relations: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” Now, the focus is becoming clearer. The goal of the Ten Commandments was to rescue God’s people from pagan degradation, both spiritual and moral, and restore them to the life of man God intended in the Garden. In the new Law of Love, we see that Jesus has come in order to restore the image and likeness of God in man, Who is Himself Perfect Love.
This is not simply a new set of rules. The kind of life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount will require an entirely new dynamic in life, a completely new heart and mind. How can mere mortals “offer no resistance to the one who is evil” and love their enemies? Jesus points the way by reminding us that God “makes His sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” At the heart of the universe lies God’s mercy, which will be fully revealed when Jesus offers Himself on the Cross. This life of the kingdom of God is God’s life in us—the Holy Spirit, Who turns us inside out, writes God’s Law of Love in our hearts, and is the power we need to live it.
This means that Jesus’ exhortation to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not a crushing, impossible burden. It is the way to fulfill our destiny—the image and likeness of God in us. Our job is to choose it.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, it is amazing to me that perfection in love is now possible in my life. Please help me keep my focus there today.
First Reading (Read Lev 19:1-2, 17-18)
God’s law, right from the beginning, called His people to be like Him: “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” It also included love of neighbor: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The problem in Israel was that the people couldn’t keep God’s law. Over and over again, throughout the centuries of their history, they struggled to be faithful to God. By Jesus’ day, “love of neighbor” was tightly restricted to “love of your fellow Jews.” The outsiders (public sinners, Samaritans, Gentiles) were hated. God’s Law did not stir up mercy in the hearts of His people. There was nothing wrong with the Law; the problem was in their hearts of stone.
Jesus came to teach His people that unless they were born again, they could never enter the kingdom of God (see Jn 3:3-5). That rebirth would come through water and the Holy Spirit, baptism. In the Church, God now calls all His people everywhere to “be holy,” to be true children of our Father. He has made the impossible now possible.
Will we believe Him and choose well?
Possible response: Heavenly Father, help me choose mercy today instead of judgment, criticism, resentment, or retaliation.
Psalm (Read Ps 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13)
Here is a beautiful meditation on the loving kindness and mercy of God: “Not according to our sins does He deal with us, nor does He requite us according to our crimes.” The psalmist extols the care God gives us: pardon, healing, redemption, a crown (a crown!). Jesus revealed to us, for all time, our true relationship with God: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.” If we want to be perfect, if we want to be holy, we will want to be like God Himself: “The Lord is kind and merciful.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Cor 3:16-23)
In this section of his epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul uses a building metaphor to describe how the Church is now the new Temple of the New Covenant, by virtue of her mystical union with Christ. He addresses himself to all believers, beginning with spiritual leaders but including all of us inasmuch as we are all called to “build up” the Church in love (see 1 Cor 14:4; Eph 4:11-16; 1 Thess 5:11). In verses prior to our reading, St. Paul gives an outline for the Temple-building metaphor. The foundation of the Temple is, of course, Jesus. Careful builders on this foundation will receive a heavenly reward (see 3:14); careless builders will pass through purging fires on their way to salvation (see 3:15). In today’s verses, he gives the final scenario for his building metaphor: destructive workers will themselves be destroyed (3:17).
In all this, we see clearly that it is the Holy Spirit Who makes us God’s holy Temple. The life Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount has now been made possible by the presence of God’s own Spirit within us. This has turned the world’s wisdom on its head, which has always bought the lie from the Serpent that human greatness and liberation can be achieved without God. St. Paul doesn’t want believers to get entangled in the world’s wisdom in the Church: “So let no one boast about human beings.” In Christ, individual personalities are not to cause division, because “all belong to you and you to Christ, and Christ to God.” This is simply a different way of emphasizing what Jesus came to do for mankind. He has made us one with the One Who made us, as well as one with each other. The choice to live this truth—to be careful builders on the One foundation of Christ—is ours.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me choose unity today—in my family, in the Church, in this world that belongs to You.