Spiritual Perfection, First Saturday of Lent, March 15, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Casa Maria Retreat House of the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, Irondale, AL
Retreat on Pope Francis, The Reform of the Church and Us
March 14-16, 2014
Dt 26:16-19, Ps 119, Mt 5:43-48

To listen to an audio recording of the homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided the homily: 

The whole point of Lent is to become like God the Father. The whole purpose of Lent is for us to become fully Christian in identity and behavior and that involves rediscovering or deepening our relationship with God in the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. On Ash Wednesday, we pondered how Jesus calls us to give alms, fast and pray differently from everyone else, doing each of these things in communion with our Father who sees in secret. We’re supposed to give alms recognizing that all that we are able to give to others we have first received from God the Father, and so our giving is an extension of his own loving Providence. We’re supposed to fast in order to hunger for what he hungers for. We’re supposed to pray by meeting God the Father in our “inner room,” the locked “store room” in a Jewish house where all valuables were kept, indicating to us not only are we supposed to treasure God most but also his love in coming to meet us in the tiny “closet” of our interior life, whether we’re praying at home or in the middle of a multitude. Lent is the time in which with God’s help we reorder our relationship with God through prayer, our relationship with others through almsgiving, our relationship with ourselves through fasting and self-denial. It’s a time to convert our hearts, our insides, our motivations, our aspirations, so that from the inside out, in all our actions, we might live as Christians ought, in the love of God the Father. Lent is the time when we relive the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when we come to our senses as to how we’ve treated God as if he were not a loving Father, wandered from his house, squandered the inheritance he has given us and make the journey home. It’s a time when he runs out to meet us, to cleanse us, to restore us to our full dignity and to rejoice with us at our conversion. It’s also a time when even when we remain in the Father’s house by not committing serious sins but still don’t relate to him with love as a beloved son and to others as beloved siblings, like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal son who never once disobeyed the Father’s orders but who failed to grasp the Father’s heart and joy at the read of his “dead” and “lost” son, that we, too, enter into the loving logic of the Father who has made us in his image and likeness. It’s the time when God the Father invites us to enter into his own merciful, loving heart and become his children. Lent is about becoming more and more Godlike.

That’s what today’s Gospel passage is about. Jesus puts an exclamation point on this Lenten and Christian 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. Therefore feel somewhat justified in dismissing what Jesus says as if it’s clearly impossible. Pope Francis back on Feb 26 said that Jesus’ call seems like an “unattainable goal.” But before 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. 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 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 believed and practices 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 do not like. 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 God, 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.

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 prayer of this retreat 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.

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 we see when we ponder the Beatitudes, is meant to lead us to true happiness, to true spiritual perfection as sons and daughters of God. We need, however, not just to hear Jesus’ message, but to believe it, to embrace it and to put it into practice. We need to give God permission to do in us what he wishes to do in order to sculpt us in his holy image. Just like any father or mother wants to raise a child to fulfill all of his or her potential, God wants to raise us to fulfill all 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 some Christians who want to pretend that there has to another way, that we can still please God, live a good Christian life, and get to heaven without taking Jesus’ words seriously and literally. Some of us 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, and go on an annual retreat, that that’s all that God wants and demands of us, that we can live by the same standards by which everyone else lives; that we can continue to live like everyone else lives, loving those who love us, hating those who hate us. Rather than striving for sanctity, we believe that if someone takes something from us, we’re justified in taking his eye or her 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, being generous only to those whom we trust, and 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. It’s not the way to happiness. It’s not the way to heaven.  Pope Francis reminded us all on February 26 that “Jesus asks those who would follow him to love those who do not deserve it, without expecting anything in return, and in this way to fill the emptiness present in human hearts, relationships, families, communities and in the entire world. … Jesus did not come to teach us good manners, how to behave well at the table! To do that, he would not have had to come down from heaven and die on the Cross.  Christ came to save us, to show us the way, the only way out of the quicksand of sin, and this way is mercy.  To be a saint is not a luxury. It is necessary for the salvation of the world.”Spiritually we cannot be God’s children without the interior revolution the Lord is inviting us to here, to become his children.

In the first reading today, Moses said, “This day the Lord, your God commands you to observe these statues. Be careful then to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you are making a covenant with the Lord: he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees and to hearken to his voice.” Today the Lord Jesus wants us to observe what he tells us in the Gospel with all our heart and soul, to receive from the Lord the grace of the new and eternal Covenant in his blood, here given for us, so that we may actually live up to his standards and become teleios as he was teleios and we will experience the blessedness of all those who follow the law of the Lord!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
DT 26:16-19

Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“This day the LORD, your God,
commands you to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then,
to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you;
and provided you keep all his commandments,
he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made,
and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God,
as he promised.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 119:1-2, 4-5, 7-8

R. (1b) Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
I will give you thanks with an upright heart,
when I have learned your just ordinances.
I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

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 and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”