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This Sunday’s Gospel (Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A) ends with the famous line, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That line has caused a lot of trouble.
It has convinced some people that the Gospels aren’t serious; they are a scheme that constantly calls us to an unattainable ideal.
This line has convinced others that perfection, in the sense of flawlessness, is possible. Some people have tried very very hard to be perfect, only to end in failure and discouragement.
The first answer when something in the Gospel seems out of whack is to look at the context. A quick look here reveals that Jesus doesn’t just say “be perfect.” He uses the phrase to finish a whole list of instructions.
Specifically, he says:
“[B]e 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.”
Jesus points out that sinners are kind to their close friends and family and their like-minded circle of acquaintances. If we are counting it a great act of love for us to serve people in our neighborhood or family who it would actually be a scandal not to serve, we need to rethink that, too.
Our standard is different: It’s the Father’s standard. He serves everyone. So we should do as he does: Be perfect as your Father is perfect.
Which brings us to the word “perfect.” Another good place to look when the Bible throws us for a loop is a good dictionary.
What does the word perfect mean? It is clear Jesus is not asking us to be perfect in every way that the Father is perfect: He is purity itself and the essence of being. We couldn’t be perfect in those ways if we tried.
It is true that one meaning of perfect is, according to Merriam Webster, “being entirely without fault or defect : flawless.” But there are many other senses in which the word could be taken — then and now: “satisfying all requirements;” “expert, proficient;” “pure, total;” “lacking in no essential detail;” “complete;” “unmitigated.”
We call a perfect day one that satisfies all requirements. We don’t mean that nothing happened that day that had any flaw. We call someone a perfect fool not because they are foolish in every way, but because they have captured the essence of foolishness.
We are called to be perfect fools for Christ, and unmitigated in our desire to love all.
St. Paul even says so. In our second reading he says to “become a fool, so as to become wise.” He says the “perfect” people of this world don’t please him. “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”
In practice the perfect love we are called to doesn’t look like hard work; it looks like wild abandon.
It is also nothing new. As today’s readings remind us, Moses heard the same advice.
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. … Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
Today’s Gospel advice to be perfect isn’t a mind game and it isn’t a call to a harsh life of caution. It is a call to love what God loves — and that means loving our friends, our neighbors and even our enemies, all of them, because he does.
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