“To be perfect,” the priest said in concluding his homily, “means that you should be the best policeman, or fireman, or Indian chief, that you can be.” I sat, rather perplexed, in a parish I occasionally visited for daily Mass. However well-intentioned the priest was, it seemed to me he was shying away from the direct and difficult words in the Gospel reading: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Those words are among the most challenging in the Bible, and yet I suspect they might also be among the most avoided and ignored. A better-known and oft-quoted statement, which opens today’s Gospel reading, is this: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” We’ve all heard many homilies about turning the other cheek, and it is a challenging thing to consider, let alone put into practice.
The same is also true of the other commands given by Jesus in this section: to give one’s cloak (an outer garment) to the man who sues for one’s tunic (the inner garment); to carry a load a second mile for the man who demands a mile of service; to love and pray for one’s enemies and persecutors. Each of these leads up to the command to be perfect.
What, then, to make of it? Msgr. Ronald Knox, in a sermon titled “Our Retaliation,” provided a basic insight that is most helpful, saying that “the difference between the old law and the new law is that the old law issues a series of commandments which have got to be obeyed, whereas the new law instills into man’s heart a spirit of active charity which ought to make commandments unnecessary for him.” The old law was given to a people in need of teaching about the proper limits of justice and retaliation. So, a foundational principle of morality is learning where the lines are drawn, of learning what is sinful and contrary to the good.
But even the old law pointed to something much greater, as we hear in today’s first reading: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes to the essential heart of the old law and reveals it afresh and completed. Yet it goes beyond even that, for the Son of God lived the new law to perfection. He did not resist the betrayal of an evil man, he turned the other cheek when struck by soldiers, he was violently stripped of his garments, and he prayed for his persecutors as he died: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), reflecting at length on the “universal call to holiness,” says, “The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of his disciples of every condition. He himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: ‘Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (No. 40). It then remarks that those who are justified in Christ through baptism “truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature.”
The Greek word for “perfect” is teleios, which means full and complete, and refers to moral perfection. It is, in other words, a call to holiness. God, who is all-holy, has created man so he can share — by the gift of grace — in his perfect, holy and divine life. Our temporal vocations as policemen and such are important, but our everlasting vocation is to be a complete child of God.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.