Coming to Perfection through Learning to Love as God Loves, Eleventh Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, New York
Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
June 16, 2015
2 Cor 8:1-9, Ps 146, Mt 5:43-48

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Throughout the Sermon on the Mount that we’ve been pondering since last Monday and on which we will continue to meditate through the end of next week, Jesus is clearly describing his standards for his behavior and for ours. The standards he articulated call us to have a “righteousness that “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” a holiness that exceeds that of virtuous pagans. Ultimately the Lord’s standards for us is that we become holy like he is holy (Lev 19:2) and respond to his grace to imitate his behavior.
  • In today’s Gospel Jesus makes this clear when he says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sometimes we can be thrown off by the word “perfect” and think that Jesus is calling us to an unachievable standard, because after all, none of us is perfect, none of us will ever be perfect, and therefore if God is calling us never to make a mistake, then he’s calling us to something beyond human capacity. Therefore we can feel somewhat justified in dismissing what Jesus says as if it’s clearly impossible, an unattainable goal. But lest we ignore what Jesus is calling us to, as if he couldn’t possibly have meant it, we should focus on a few things.
  • First, the main emphasis of what Jesus is saying is “Be like your heavenly Father.” He was specifically calling us to be like him in particular ways in the Gospel. Earlier in the passage he gave us specific exhortations so that we “may be children of [our] Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Jesus implies that we will not really become children of God until we start behaving like God, that he can be our Father without our being his children unless we experience the inner revolution to which Jesus is calling us and unless we seek to act as his children, to behave like Jesus who shows us how to live as a Son of God. Just as God the Father loves everyone and does good to everyone, including those who curse him, including those who make themselves his enemy through sin and an evil life, including those who try to use him whenever they need him, Jesus calls us to do the same, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to walk the second mile, to give our cloak as well as our tunic, to give generously to all those who need to borrow. We’re called to be good — to let our sun or life-giving rain fall — not just on those who are good to us but even on those who are not good to us, just like the Father does. This is the path to true holiness, this is the means by which we become, in action, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, by behaving as he behaves. As we prayed in the Alleluia verse from Jesus’ words during the Last Supper, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” On the other hand, we cannot be like God the Father when we don’t love others enough to forgive them when they hurt us, to pray for them when they persecute us, to sacrifice for them when they’re in need, to avoid all vengeance against them when they strike us on our cheek or otherwise hurt or offend us.
  • Second, when he calls us to be perfect like our Father in loving our enemies, he’s using a special word. There are four Greek words for love. The first is storge, the type of loving affection we have more what’s familiar to us, for our brothers and sisters, for our cousins, even for things like our home, or our favorite chair. We’re not called to love our enemies with this affection. The second is philia, which is the love of friendship, a type of second self. There have been many saints over the course of time who counseled that the way not to have any enemies is to make one’s enemies one’s friends, but this is not what Jesus is asking of us. There’s no reciprocity in good, after all, between us and those who are bent on hurting or persecuting us. The third type of love is eros, which means romantic love. Jesus isn’t calling us to marry our enemies. The word Jesus uses is agape, the same word he uses when he calls us to love others as he has loved us. This means “invincible goodwill,” “unconquerable benevolence.” No matter what others do to us, no matter how they treat us, not matter how much they grieve or injure us, we will never allow bitterness against them to invade our hearts. This means that the love to which Jesus is calling us won’t be a thing of the emotions or the heart but of the will.God’s agape for us, loving us while we were making ourselves his enemies through sin, gives us the power to love those we don’t like. Dorothy Day used to say that we love the Lord to the extent we love the person we like the least, that we love people with the will whom our emotions struggle to tolerate. This love for our enemies, this invincible good doesn’t prohibit punishing others, protecting ourselves against them, but it does require that we do so to help reform them and prevent their doing evil. It’s aimed at helping them rather than taking revenge. And the way we learn how to love our enemies by his praying for them, which is why Jesus immediately after calling us to love our enemies calls us to pray for our persecutors. It’s hard to pray for someone and hate them at the same time.
  • Third, to understand what Jesus means when he calls us to be “perfect” like our Father in heaven, we have to grasp the Greek word St. Matthew employs. The Greek word St. Matthew uses is “teleios,” which is the adjective that comes from the noun “telos,” which means “end” or “goal.” Teleios means fit to achieve its end or purpose. A hammer, for example, is teleios for pounding in a nail. A student is teleios when he has mastered the material, lives it and can teach it to others. When Jesus calls us — in fact commands us —to be “teleios” as our heavenly Father is “teleios,” he’s not intending that we engage in a type of errorless and sinless perfectionistic striving for the unattainable that will destroy our spiritual, psychological and physical lives. Rather, he is summoning us to order our lives to the same purpose and same goal as God the Father, to mature to full stature, to achieve the end for which we were made, which is to be fully in the image and likeness of Godto be holy as God is holy, to love like God loves, to be merciful as he is merciful, to behave truly as children of our Father.
  • In order to achieve this Christian perfection, God doesn’t leave us on our own but gives us all the help we need. Everything in our Christian life is meant to help us to become teleios. 
    • The sacraments are meant to help us come to perfection by assisting us from within to become more and more like the one we encounter in the Sacraments, Jesus Christ, who feeds us with himself, who forgives us our sins, who fills us with his Holy Spirit, who conforms us to himself, who joins us in one flesh with another to become a true communion of persons in marriage and family resembling the Trinitarian interpersonal communion, and who helps unite our sufferings to his.
    • The Word of God is meant to help us to become teleios, by imparting to us God’s wisdom and showing us the true path to love like he loves.
    • Prayer is meant to help us to become teleios, by helping us to think as God thinks rather than the way everyone else thinks, to help us say and desire that God’s will be done rather than our own. The increase in the quality and quantity of our Lenten prayer is meant to help us to become more like our Father, as chips off the old divine block.
    • Our daily life, including our sufferings, is meant to help us to become teleios, This means when someone slaps us on the cheek, or begs from us, or hates or persecute us, all of can be used by God to bring us to perfection. This was the path God the Father used to perfect Jesus according to his humanity. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered and, being perfected, because the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Jesus was perfected according to his human nature, precisely through his suffering. He was perfected when he didn’t retaliate against the brutal Roman soldiers who slapped him, mocked him and put a crown of thorns on his head. When they took his tunic in order to scourge and crucify him, he allowed them to take his cloak as well. When they compelled him to walk with the Cross on his shoulders, he continued nearly two miles, helped by Simon of Cyrene. When he was being crucified, he cried out with love for his enemies and prayer for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” And by his horrendous but salvific death, Jesus made salvation and sanctification possible. By what he won through this apparent defeat he gained for us the graces to be able to love as he loves, to become not just in name but in action children of the Father living in his image and likeness.
    • Our charity is meant to help us to become teleios, by imitating and sharing God’s generosity toward us. That’s what St. Paul was describing in today’s first reading when he encouraged the Corinthians to sacrifice for their needy spiritual siblings in Jerusalem in imitation of Christ who “although he was rich, for your sake became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Their charity would be a means, he told them, to show the “genuineness of your love by your concern for others.” It would be a test of whether they were seeking to become as charitable as God is charitable. As the Responsorial Psalm says, God secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, raises up those who were bowed down, loves the just and protects strangers. To become teleios means to respond to God’s help to do the same.
  • To become perfected, to become holy, we need to follow Jesus Christ not just partially, not just at a distance, not just picking-and-choosing the parts of his teaching that don’t require a radical change on our part, but up close, fully, totally. The whole Sermon on the Mount, as we see in the Beatitudes with which Jesus begins it, is meant to lead us to true happiness, to true spiritual perfection as sons and daughters of God. But we need to grasp that God’s plan for our life is far more than our becoming merely “good people” like the pagans he describes who love those who love them and who do good to those who are good to them. God’s plans for us is for us to become fully his children by behaving like him.
  • And to help us in this task, he gives us himself. To become teleios means to have our live enter into holy communion with the “Leader and Perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). It’s in union with him that we learn how to love like him, to sacrifice ourselves like St. Paul, to pray for those persecuting us, and to behave by the power of the Holy Spirit as beloved children. The Eucharist is the food that when received in the way Jesus wants to be received will help us to become teleios, to be like our Father through becoming one with the Son who is the image of the Father. The Eucharist is the food of spiritual perfection provided that we cooperate and allow Jesus from the inside out to lead us to the perfection for which he made us.  “Praise the Lord my soul!”

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 2 COR 8:1-9

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, of the grace of God
that has been given to the churches of Macedonia,
for in a severe test of affliction,
the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty
overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
For according to their means, I can testify,
and beyond their means, spontaneously,
they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part
in the service to the holy ones,
and this, not as we expected,
but they gave themselves first to the Lord
and to us through the will of God,
so that we urged Titus that, as he had already begun,
he should also complete for you this gracious act also.
Now as you excel in every respect,
in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness,
and in the love we have for you,
may you excel in this gracious act also.I say this not by way of command,
but to test the genuineness of your love
by your concern for others.
For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Responsorial Psalm PS 146:2, 5-6AB, 6C- 7, 8-9A

R. (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
or:
R. Alleluia.
Praise the LORD, my soul!
I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God while I live.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
or:
R. Alleluia.
Blessed he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD, his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
or:
R. Alleluia.
Who keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
or:
R. Alleluia.
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
or:
R. Alleluia.

Alleluia JN 13:34

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I give you a new commandment:
love one another as I have loved you.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MT 5:43-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
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.
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.”
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