Human Perfection as the Image of God, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), February 20, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry

St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

February 20, 2011

Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

 

The following text guided this homily:

HUMAN PERFECTION AS THE IMAGE OF GOD

  • Over the course of our study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount during the last three weeks, I’ve stressed that the main point of the Sermon is that Jesus is calling us, as his disciples, to live by his standards, not by the standards of others. Last week, he told us that our relationship with God must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees, who were the most religiously observant Jews. Today he tells us that we need to do better than the tax collectors who love those who love them, than the upright Gentiles who greet and do good to those who greet and do good to them. He calls us to live by HIS standards. Today’s readings make this point emphatically.
  • In today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus, we see what God commanded Moses to say to all the Israelites: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God am holy.” He tells them both what standard he’s calling them to — not just to be a “good person” but to “be holy” — and he told them the reason why: “because I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
  • In the second reading, St. Paul indicates to the Corinthians how we’re called to become holy. He says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy and you are that temple.” Our holiness means allowing God who is holy, holy, holy to dwell within us, to grow within us, to love within us, to reign within us. Many times we think the essence of holiness involves thousands of good deeds, things that we do on our own; rather, holiness means allowing God truly to abide in us and us in him in a dynamic way that transforms us more and more into the image and likeness of God in whom we were created.
  • In the Gospel today, Jesus puts an exclamation point on this calling. He tells us, “Therefore, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Many times when we hear this we’re thrown off by the word “perfect” and think that this is 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 and therefore we’re justified in blowing off what Jesus says because it’s clearly impossible. But before we dismiss what Jesus says 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.” 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 but then just ignore him without any thanksgiving afterward, Jesus tells 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 as 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. We cannot be like God the Father, on the other hand, 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.
    • Second, when Jesus calls us to be “perfect” like our Father in heaven, we have to understand the Greek word St. Matthew employs. There are two things we can say about it:
      • First, the real translation is “be perfected as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is calling us, like St. Paul called the Corinthians, to allow God to carry out his work of perfection in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The path to perfection is not principally our work but our cooperation with God’s work, to allow him to bring to perfection within us what he has started on the day of our baptism. This is an absolutely key point. We need to give God permission to help us to sculpt us into his image and likeness, to form us to love like he loves, to be merciful as he is merciful, to sacrifice for all just like he lets his sun shine equally on his faithful and his unfaithful sons and daughters, because he loves them all.
      • The Greek word St. Matthew uses is “teleios,” which means being fitting for its purpose. A screwdriver is teleios for driving in a screw. An umblemished Lamb was teleios for the sacrifice in the temple. A student is teleios when he has mastered the material, lives in and can teach it to others. When we’re called to be “teleios” as our heavenly Father is “teleios,” Jesus is saying we’re called to come to full stature, to achieve the end for which we were made, to be fully in the image and likeness of God, in short, truly to 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.
      • There’s a beautiful prayer St. Paul makes in his letter to the Philippians when he says, “I am sure that he who has begun this good work in you will bring it to fulfillment on the day of Christ Jesus.” This prayer has made itself repeatedly into the rites of religious professions and the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops. The bishop prays, for example, during the ordination of a priest that the Lord who has begun the good work in the man may bring it to fulfillment, so that the man might truly grow into the image of Christ the High Priest by modeling his life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross, which is the greatest sign of the self-sacrificing love for God and others that is meant to characterize the priesthood. That is what is meant to be perfected as a priest. For us as Christians, God wants to bring the good work he began in us on the day of our baptism to completion. Everything in life is meant to help us 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. Our daily life, not just the good times but also the tough and challenging things, 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 this can be used by God to bring us to perfection.
      • That’s what God the Father did to bring God the Son to perfection. We read in the Letter to the Hebrews, that when “he was in the flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered and, being perfected, became 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 the 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 opened the gates of salvation not just for the righteous, but for us all, provided that we convert and follow him through that narrow gate.
      • That’s why, to become perfected, to become holy, to become a true temple of God, 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 mentioned when we started with the beatitudes, is meant to lead us to true happiness, to true spiritual perfection as sons and daughters of God, but we need not just to hear Jesus’ message, but believe it, embrace it and live it, by allowing God to do what he wishes to do in us, to raise us, just like any Father or Mother wants to raise a child, to fulfill all of the potential with which he has created us, to be holy like he is holy, perfect as he is perfect, fully human and more and more divine.
    • There are those of us who want to pretend that there’s another way, that we can still please God, live a good Christian life, and get to heaven without taking Jesus’ words seriously and literally. We want to believe that as long as we do a few good deeds, come to Mass, pray a little each day, give something to the poor, that that’s all that God wants. If we do these things, we think that we can continue not to strive for sanctity but rather, to quote Leviticus today, to “hate our kin in our heart,” to “reprove our neighbor,” and to “take vengeance.” We think that if someone takes something from us, we’re justified in taking their eye or their tooth, we’re perfectly okay in slapping someone back who slaps us first, we’re fine in loving only those whom we think deserve our love, or being generous only to those who we trust, or vanquishing our enemy before our enemy vanquishes us. Today is the day in which Jesus wants us to recognize that this is not the way to human fulfillment. His way alone is. That leaves us with a choice.
    • In today’s second reading, St. Paul says: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” To those who are wise in this age, the whole Sermon on the Mount — from the beatitudes to what Jesus teaches us today about turning the other cheek and loving, having unconquerable benevolence, toward even our enemies — is totally idiocy, just like they believe that the Cross is utter folly. But those who are truly wise know, with St. Paul, that the Cross is the power and the wisdom of God. Those who are truly wise see that Jesus’ words alone are the path to eternal life. Those who are foolish in the eyes of the world and wise in what pertains to God are the only ones who will come to perfection, who will recognize as St. Paul finishes the second reading today, that “all things are yours —  Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present and the future — all things are yours, all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Today Jesus teaches us the true path to have it all. May we respond to his help to cooperate with him in transforming us by the Holy Spirit so that we may have it all, in this world and in the next. Amen!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 LV 19:1-2, 17-18

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

Responsorial Psalm PS 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13

R/ (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.

Reading 2 1 COR 3:16-23

Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Let no one deceive himself.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,
for it is written:
God catches the wise in their own ruses,
and again:
The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are vain.

So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,
Paul or Apollos or Cephas,
or the world or life or death,
or the present or the future:
all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.

Gospel MT 5:38-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
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.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“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.”