Sunday, February 20, 2011

Be Perfect

Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect[Matthew 5:48].
Sounds pretty demanding, doesn’t it? Not just “be good,” but “be perfect” – just as our heavenly Father is perfect.
And demanding it is. No question about it! Extreme as it may sound, however, there was in fact nothing new really in Jesus’ demand. We just heard the Lord tell Moses: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy[Leviticus 19:1-2].
God is holy. So his people should also be holy. Holiness describes who God actually is and must likewise describe who we are if we are actually God’s people – and must also then have recognizable consequences for the kind of person I am and the kind of person I am becoming as a member of God’s community.
St. Paul picks up on the same theme: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you … the temple of God, which you are, is holy [1 Corinthians 3:16-17].
Now the way this translates from God to me is revealed in how I behave in relation to others. Listen again to Moses:
You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.”
“Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.”
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Lev. 19:17-18]
But again it is not a case of translating an abstract ethical proposition into its concrete applications. It’s how God behaves, because that is who God is. It’s how we actually experience God behaving. Our heavenly Father, Jesus reminds us, “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.[Mt. 5:45]
That the scorching desert sun afflicts the good as well as the bad and that the life-giving rain, which makes the land livable, benefits the unjust as well as on the just was something perfectly obvious to Jesus’ contemporaries – as it should be to us.
Demanding indeed is the challenge Jesus poses to his disciples – and no less so for being already familiar from the Old Testament. It represents a real challenge to our ordinary common sense. If it’s super demanding, it is because it goes against so much of what our ordinary experience identifies for us as common sense. For the reality is that it is the most natural and seemingly sensible thing in the world to bear hatred in one’s heart, to take revenge, and to cherish grudges. Going that extra mile and loving one’s enemies don’t make much sense – at least not in the immediate term. On our own, none of us would likely get beyond the ever-tightening circle of anger, hatred, and resentment. It’s only when we get beyond ourselves – or more precisely are taken beyond ourselves by God’s grace – that we recognize what my local Paulist superior, Fr, Charlie Donahue, has called “the rippling damage in not living a reconciling life.”
Becoming the person God is calling one to be involves much more than just getting over our anger and letting go of our resentments. It means making God’s holiness my own, letting God’s holiness take over my life, letting God’s perfection make up for my imperfection.
Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 20, 2011.

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