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“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says in the Gospel this Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A).
If you look at that injunction the wrong way, it can look like God wants “perfectionism” or that we will always fall short of God’s ideal. But for 2,000 years of Christianity, it has not been taken that way — instead, it has transformed the way whole cultures are formed.
To understand what Jesus is saying, it is helpful to start by asking: How is the heavenly Father perfect?
What does it mean to be perfect like the Father? The Seventh Sunday’s Psalm and Second Reading give us some indication.
The heavenly Father was not a “perfectionist” in the way he created us. After all the Psalm prays that God “pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills” and “redeems your life from destruction.”
God’s justice is not “perfectionist” either. “Not according to our sins does he deal with us,” we pray. “Nor does he requite us according to our crimes.”
God does not demand perfect wisdom. As Paul says, “If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise.”
God does not even expect his great saints to be perfect. Paul says “Let no one boast about human beings,” including “Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas,” that is, St. Peter himself.
Last, the heavenly Father does not demand a perfect Temple, either. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?” he asks.
So, what is the perfection of the heavenly Father? Not perfectionism, but perfect freedom, which means we can make mistakes, and perfect love, which means he is generous to us even when we sin.
This is exactly what God wants to see in us.
In the first reading, from Leviticus, God makes a mighty proclamation: “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” Then he gives the key to this holiness: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says the same thing.
First he says, “I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” Then he says, “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.”
In other words, do not demand love from others, but do demand love from yourself.
This is not just the only way to be like God, it is the only way that works in the world. As St. John Chrysostom put it, we do good to those who hurt us because “Fire is not put out by fire, but by water.” As St. Gregory the Great put it, we give more than the minimum because: “He who does not divide with his needy neighbor what is necessary to him proves that he loves him less than himself.”
Jesus’s next words are a mighty teaching that has changed history.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “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.”
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that “[l]ove of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution’ … the revolution of love.”
He added, “Here is the newness of the Gospel which silently changes the world! Here is the heroism of the ‘lowly’ who believe in God’s love and spread it, even at the cost of their lives.”
In the early Church, Romans were converted by Christians because they saw the way Christians lived. As Church Father Tertullian put it, the world was “animated by mutual hatred,” always ready to put their enemies to death, but the Christians were “ready even to die for one another.”
“See how they love one another!” people said, and they wanted to love like that too.
The same is true today. After ISIS terrorists killed a group of Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015, broadcasting footage of their beheadings, the families of the martyrs had astounding things to say. Typical was the 11-year-old daughter of the martyr Maged Shehata. She said: “May God forgive the killers. We don’t have hatred towards them — this is Christianity. God forgives the sinners. So shall we.”
That love is infectious. One young Coptic Christian shared on Twitter this year, “I can’t believe it’s been five years since the incident that made me change my life. In 2015 I was immature and hated the Church. When I heard about the video, and the reactions after, it reminded who I am and who Christ is. About a year later I started going back to Church.”
She now runs a Christian apologetics account.
She learned the history-shaping truth that only love will change the world.
It is easy to get caught up in the power politics of our day, and look for ways to crush our opponents, having seen what harm they can do.
That’s not the Christian way.
The Second Reading points out that even Peter and Paul were imperfect. But they had a secret. As St. Peter famously said, “love covers a multitude of sins.” And as St. Paul said, “If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.” But “Love never fails.”
If we really believe that, and bet our lives on it, we will be perfect, too.