There are two striking sentences, which captivates our attention in the readings of today: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19: 2 – 1st reading) and “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5, 48 – Gospel). They give rise to the following questions:” What are then the holiness to which God in the book of Leviticus and the perfection to which Jesus calls us? Who can become perfect as God the Father?
The phrase of Christ reported by St. Luke “Be merciful as your Father” (Lk 6, 36) can help with the answer. Combining this sentence to the one mentioned by St. Matthew: “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5, 48) we can say in the first place that the perfection of God is his mercy. Then, we can be perfect if we live mercy. “Goodness and perfection are rooted on mercy” (Pope Francis). With the Pope we can say that the perfection of man is the conquest of mercy, and mercy is the synthesis of the happy and good news brought by the Redeemer.
Secondly, we can say that our perfection is to live humbly as children of God by putting in practice His will that gives us clear directions: the commandments. St Cyprian wrote that “To the fatherhood of God must match a behavior as children of God, so that God may be glorified and praised by the good conduct of man.”
Thirdly, it must be remembered that Christ does not ask us perfection in the observance of legal codes and regulations. He wants us perfect, of course, but in love. To be perfect in holiness means to believe in Love, expanding our hearts so that they will accept God. Let us open ourselves to God’s love. Ultimately, holiness, even if it is our response to God, is a gift from God. We must open ourselves to Him in faith and receive His love. Holiness does not consist in ritualism, but imbibing the Gospel values, assimilating its spirit and reflecting them by our way of life. No wonder Jesus tells us to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. It is the challenge that Jesus throws on to us, when He says unless your virtues goes deeper than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. We need to be empowered by the spirit of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and life for each one of us.
In the Gospel, as Jesus continues to teach his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, he again reminds his hearers that more is expected of his disciples than was laid down in the Old Testament. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.” That sounds like a command to take vengeance. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. It is Gandhi who said, “An eye for an eye and tooth for tooth will make the whole world blind and toothless.”
The true Christian reaction: Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount rejects even the concession of milder retaliation allowed by Moses. For Jesus, retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, even though graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength and discipline of character as well as strengthening by God’s grace. Jesus wants his disciples to repay evil with kindness. Instead of retaliation, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. Jesus illustrates the Christian approach by giving three examples. 1) Turn to him the other cheek: Striking someone on the right cheek requires striking with the back of one’s hand, and according to Jewish concept it inflicts more insult than pain. Jesus instructs his followers to forgive the insult gracefully and convert the offender. It is interesting that Gandhi said, "Everyone in the world knows that Jesus and His teaching are non-violent, except Christians." 2) "If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also": (v. 40). Jesus teaches that his followers should show more responsibility and a greater sense of duty than to fight for privileges. 3) Go with him two miles. Roman law permitted its soldiers and other officials to require people to carry a burden for a mile. Service of this sort could be quite oppressive. Here Jesus tells us that a Christian has the duty of responding, even to seemingly unjust demands by helping or serving gracefully, not grudgingly. The principle is this: When we respond to an onerous duty with cheerfulness rather than resentment, we may win over the one who gave us the duty.
Jesus before his accusers: During his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was struck on the cheek and accused of insolence. How did he respond? Did he turn the other cheek? Not exactly. Did he hit back? No. He simply said, “If I have done any wrong, tell me what it is. If not, why do you strike me?” There is no anger, no vindictiveness, no abuse. He simply speaks to his accusers in quiet, reasonable terms in a totally non-violent way. He retains his dignity while they lose theirs in violence and abuse. He does not cringe before them; in fact, he stands up to them.
Dealing with enemies
But Jesus is not finished yet. “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the pagans do the same?”
Nothing eats away at our innards more than resentment, anger, hatred and violence. Sometimes we think we can punish people by hating them but it is we ourselves, not they, who are the real victims. And, of course, it is in our attitude to hostile and misbehaving people that the genuineness of our concern for people is really tested. As Jesus says, it is easy to care for the people who are close to us, who are good to us. To paraphrase the Gospel, even terrorists love terrorists. The Mafia is known for its loyalty to its members – but not to anyone else.
The passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, then, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If we reflect on it, we will begin to see that this is the only reasonable way for us to deal with people both for our own personal growth and fulfilment and as contributing also to that of others. Jesus is not asking us to do something impossible and unreasonable, but to open our eyes and see; what is the only really sensible way to live and relate with the people around us.
And why should we treat other people with such reverence and concern? Because, as St Paul says today, “you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you. If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple” — and so is that person next to me right now. Here Paul is speaking specifically of Christians who form the Body of Christ but, in other ways, every single person is made in the image of the Creator and God is present in some way there.
Cardinal Newman teaches: “It is the opinion of many saints that if we want to be perfect, all we must do is to fulfill our daily duties. It is a short path that leads to perfection; short, not because it is easy, but because everyone can follow it.