Matthew 5:38-48
Nobody's Perfect

by Rev. Robert J. Wagner

Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye ad 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.”

When someone is called a perfectionist, it is usually not meant as a compliment. Instead, it points to an irrational desire that everything should be completely flawless all the time, a standard that is impossible to reach in a fallen world. Such people are often anxious or frustrated by their own weaknesses and the weaknesses of others. Therefore, when someone is acting like a perfectionist, he or she is not easy to work with or, worse yet, even be around.

In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells His disciples to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:38). Is Jesus telling us to be perfectionists, held up to the impossible standard of being Godlike? Gratefully, no. God knows our faults better than we do. He died on the Cross to forgive our sins knowing that all of us are sinners (Rom 3:23). He knows that, requiring us to live up to an impossible standard would be cruel, and we know that God is perfect love. Too often, Catholics and other Christians are mocked for being anxious and living as if they and others are paralyzed with guilt because they focus on avoiding sin and not on the freedom of being sons and daughters of God.

So what does Jesus mean when He tells us to be perfect? How can we avoid anxiety knowing we can never reach the standard set before us by God? The answer is to see all through the lens of salvation, knowing that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). With such an understanding, our anxiety and fear are replaced with confidence in God’s unconditional love, while our desire for holiness and pursuit of perfection remains. 

In the examples Jesus offers in Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is asking His audience to go beyond what is expected of them in the way of forgiveness. The law said that if someone was harmed, they were entitled to inflict the same punishment on their assailant. If someone knocks out your tooth, the law allows you to do the same to him (Lv 24:19-20). Jesus says that while the law allows for such revenge, God asks us to forgive beyond what the law allows. Therefore, if someone injures us, we are called not to seek justice, but to offer mercy instead. In this, we are called to imitate God or to be perfect like Our Heavenly Father. In this we are called to respond with love and change the culture around us.

However, each of us knows this is a difficult task. When we are treated unjustly, our first response is not to forgive, but to seek justice. Jesus also knows that in this, and in many other divine commands, we will sometimes fail. His response is that which He is calling us to imitate with His grace: not a response of anger, but one of mercy. When we fall short of the perfection we are called to live out as Christians, Jesus asks us to go to Him to experience His mercy, that we may be forgiven and strengthened. 

In particular, as Catholics we are called to meet Jesus in the sacrament of Confession, knowing that through the priest, Jesus pours out His mercy upon us. Some of us may have the same fear of this beautiful sacrament that we do of Christ’s call to perfection. It brings us anxiety because we have to face our imperfections. Yet with the understanding of God’s mercy, we need only to know that we have nothing to fear when we go to Jesus with contrite hearts. When we do this, there is no sin that is unforgivable. Jesus always welcomes us with love.

In our pursuit of perfection we are called to be like Jesus, who is the perfect model of goodness and love. This is our lifelong journey: to strive each day to be a clearer image of Jesus knowing that He offers us the grace to do so. In this life of constant conversion, however, may we always be aware of the love of Jesus when we fail to live up to His perfect standard, so if we fall short, we come to Him for forgiveness. 

Jesus knows that nobody is perfect, at least not until they join Him in the company of saints and angels in heaven. May we pursue our salvation without fear that we may be joyful and fit instruments of God’s mercy toward others, and joyful and fit recipients of God’s mercy for us.

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