Have you ever had an argument where you felt sure of your position, but came around to the other side once you listened a little harder?
I reach conclusions very quickly, so it happens to me all the time.
Which is good—because sometimes my arguments are with Jesus, and as you probably know, he’s always right!
One of my arguments with the Lord arose many years ago when I first thought about what he said in today’s Gospel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To me, that seemed like a recipe for frustration, or worse.
And in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus himself says “No one is good but God alone.”
So where does that leave us? Are we left trying to achieve the impossible? How are we to avoid unhealthy perfectionism, which psychology recognizes as a significant problem?
When I manage to come around to someone else’s point of view in an argument, it’s usually because I tried harder to understand. Sometimes I’d got stuck in how I reason and use language when the other person’s thought processes are very different from mine.
In other words, I need to figure out what the other is saying, how it’s being said, and why.
What is Jesus saying today? Does he really mean that Christians need to be as perfect as God?
I didn’t spend a lot of time on the how. This is one of many times when Jesus uses exaggeration to make an important point in a powerful way. He does the same thing when he tells us to pluck out an eye or cut off an arm if these lead us to sin.
The what, when I wrestled with the text a bit, became a bit clearer. The whole Gospel passage this morning helps us understand what being perfect as our Father in heaven looks like, realistically. Loving your enemy, refusing retaliation, giving and lending—these are difficult but doable, not impossible or perfectionistic.
In the words of The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Jesus “calls his disciples to reflect the Father’s perfect, committed, selfless, merciful love in their own lives.”
So far, so good. But I was still stuck on the why. Why did Jesus command perfection in such an uncompromising fashion?
I was given a deeply painful answer to this question while I was in the middle of writing this week’s homily. The late Jean Vanier, a man I thought might be the next Canadian saint, was found to have had abusive relationships with adult women.
None of the tsunami of revelations and accusations in the Church has rocked me like this one. But this devastating news helps me understand why Jesus chose to command us to seek perfection in such absolute and even unachievable terms. Because, as I have preached several times before, we are at war.
The reports about Jean Vanier—which come after a careful internal investigation—are a reminder that all the good we do, everything good within every one of us, is under daily attack from a powerful enemy.
We’ll never really know what happened to cause Jean Vanier’s fall. Satan has special strategies to bring down the great. But one he often uses on the rest of us is getting us to think that “good enough is good enough.”
When we reach a certain stage on the discipleship path, we figure we can rest a little. We can sleep in a bit—literally or figuratively.
Jesus wanted to slam the door on that kind of thinking. He set us a target we could never achieve—the very holiness of God—so that we would never stop trying.
Like any wise King, Jesus knew that complacent subjects—and especially complacent soldiers—were just what an enemy hopes for.
So, without argument, let us seek every day to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And not just by good intentions, since such a lofty goal demands serious strategy. You’ve heard me say many times “if we fail to plan, we plan to fail.”
Lent invites us every year to strive seriously and intentionally to be holy. Prayer, fasting, and charity to the poor are the three means Jesus speaks about in the Gospel we’ll hear on Ash Wednesday. But this year, in this season of struggle in the Church, I want to suggest we focus on prayer.
To help us grow in holiness and Christian perfection, the parish is offering each of you a prayer book that contains a complete plan for Lent. (An earlier edition is available as a .pdf download, here.)
But what if we’ve grown weary on our journey? What if the whole idea of striving for holiness falls flat for us? Maybe we don’t have the taste for prayer.
The Discovery Faith Study is intended to rekindle the fire within us. You’ll hear after Communion today about faith studies for men at the parish during Lent. The bulletin has information on the faith studies we’re sponsoring for both men and women at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.
Let’s not deceive ourselves, as St. Paul says in the second reading. We need God's wisdom, and God’s holiness, to stay afloat on a stormy sea.