Gospel Commentary Mt 5:38-48
When someone is called a perfectionist, it is usually not meant
as a compliment. Instead, it points to an irrational desire that everything
should be completely flawless all the time, a standard that is impossible to
reach in a fallen world. Such people are often anxious or frustrated by their
own weaknesses and the weaknesses of others. Therefore, when someone is acting
like a perfectionist, he or she is not easy to work with or, worse yet, even be
In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells His disciples to “be
perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:38). Is Jesus telling
us to be perfectionists, held up to the impossible standard of being Godlike?
Gratefully, no. God knows our faults better than we do. He died on the Cross to
forgive our sins knowing that all of us are sinners (Rom 3:23). He knows that,
requiring us to live up to an impossible standard would be cruel, and we know
that God is perfect love. Too often, Catholics and other Christians are mocked
for being anxious and living as if they and others are paralyzed with guilt
because they focus on avoiding sin and not on the freedom of being sons and
daughters of God.
So what does Jesus mean when He tells us to be perfect? How can
we avoid anxiety knowing we can never reach the standard set before us by God?
The answer is to see all through the lens of salvation, knowing that “God did
not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might
be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). With such an understanding, our anxiety and
fear are replaced with confidence in God’s unconditional love, while our desire
for holiness and pursuit of perfection remains.
In the examples Jesus offers in Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is asking His
audience to go beyond what is expected of them in the way of forgiveness. The
law said that if someone was harmed, they were entitled to inflict the same
punishment on their assailant. If someone knocks out your tooth, the law allows
you to do the same to him (Lv 24:19-20). Jesus says that while the law allows
for such revenge, God asks us to forgive beyond what the law allows. Therefore,
if someone injures us, we are called not to seek justice, but to offer mercy
instead. In this, we are called to imitate God or to be perfect like Our
Heavenly Father. In this we are called to respond with love and change the
culture around us.
However, each of us knows this is a difficult task. When we are
treated unjustly, our first response is not to forgive, but to seek justice.
Jesus also knows that in this, and in many other divine commands, we will
sometimes fail. His
response is that which He is calling us to imitate with His grace: not a
response of anger, but one of mercy. When we fall short of the
perfection we are called to live out as Christians, Jesus asks us to go to Him
to experience His mercy, that we may be forgiven and strengthened.
In particular, as Catholics we are called to meet Jesus in the
sacrament of Confession, knowing that through the priest, Jesus pours out His
mercy upon us. Some of us may have the same fear of this beautiful sacrament
that we do of Christ’s call to perfection. It brings us anxiety because we have
to face our imperfections. Yet with the understanding of God’s mercy, we need
only to know that we have nothing to fear when we go to Jesus with contrite
hearts. When we do this, there is no sin that is unforgiveable. Jesus always
welcomes us with love.
In our pursuit of perfection we are called to be like Jesus, who
is the perfect model of goodness and love. This is our lifelong journey: to
strive each day to be a clearer image of Jesus knowing that He offers us the
grace to do so. In this life of constant conversion, however, may we always be
aware of the love of Jesus when we fail to live up to His perfect standard, so
if we fall short, we come to Him for forgiveness.
Jesus knows that nobody is perfect, at least not until they join
Him in the company of saints and angels in heaven. May we pursue our salvation
without fear that we may be joyful and fit instruments of God’s mercy toward
others, and joyful and fit recipients of God’s mercy for us.
Fr. Wagner is Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge’s secretary.