The 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Lev 19:1-2,17-18  +  1 Cor 3:16-23  +  Mt 5:38-48
February 19, 2017

Perfectionism vs. Jesus’ call to be perfect

In a newspaper essay, a writer humorously bemoaned the fact that we Americans are bad at taking advice.  The author, well past middle age and by his own admission not in great physical shape, gives several examples of his unwillingness to follow well-intentioned advice.  For example, he writes: “My wife is always telling me that yoga will help relieve the pain in my lower back.  She is almost certainly right.  Yoga would probably be an immense help to my aching lower back.  But I am never going to a yoga class.”

He gives another example in describing a neighbor’s visit to his home.  He writes that this neighbor, while “inspecting the vast record and compact disc collection that takes up a large part of my living room… suggested that I load all my CDs onto a server to clear away the clutter.  He also said that I should convert my LPs to MP3 files[,] and get wireless speakers installed in every room.  I said thanks, those are really great suggestions.  But I am never going to do any of this stuff.”[1]

So it is.  Our not taking good advice reveals a division inside the human heart.  Most of us want to improve ourselves, but there’s a chasm between what we want, and what we will to do.  The essay’s author quotes a fellow worker in the publishing world, who rhetorically asks, “‘If diet books worked, why are there eight new dieting books each year?’”[2]  Our lives, if not our intentions, reveal the chasm between what we want to do, and what we will to do.

Indeed, we want to be perfect:  this is part of the American creed.  We want to be perfect at everything.  But the more things we want to be perfect at, the wider that chasm between what we want, and what we will to do.  Given all this, Jesus’ last words in today’s Gospel passage seem awfully discouraging.

Jesus bids us to “‘be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”  How is that even possible?  On the surface, that sounds even more difficult than what American culture strives for!  How can we be as perfect as is our heavenly Father?  That sounds like a recipe for failure!

The key is the word “perfect”.  The Latin word from which we get our verb “to perfect” means literally “to thoroughly make”, or in other words, “to make something reach its potential”.  Most of nature has perfection built into its genetics.  An acorn reaches its potential when it becomes an oak tree:  in other words, the oak tree is the “perfected acorn”.  Likewise, a chick becomes a hen.  A fawn becomes a deer.  Still, it’s true that many plants and animals may not reach 100% of their potential—whether because of a lack of food, or nurturing, or even a genetic defect—but by nature—and by nature’s God—they are designed to do so.

So Jesus, at the end of today’s Gospel, is not bidding us to become God!  When Jesus speaks to us about our heavenly Father being perfect, He’s reminding us that God already is Who He’s supposed to be.  God is Who He says He is.  God is love.  God is perfect love.

The sin of anger within the heart

So where does that leave you and me?  As sinners, we’re left in the presence of Jesus as He preaches His Sermon on the Mount to us.  He’s teaching us, through this Sermon, the way that leads us to His Father:  that is, the way to be perfect in our love.  Jesus gives us six concrete examples of this Way.  Four of them He preached to us last Sunday.  In today’s Gospel passage He gives us two more.  Consider these examples relating to anger, and consider how they show us how to perfect our fallen human nature.

Remember that at the beginning of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insisted:  “ ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.’ ”  It’s in this light, then, that we look at these examples.  Both have to do with turning away from anger and hatred, and turning towards divine love.  It’s only through that divine love that we can be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Last Sunday Jesus proclaimed to us:  “ ‘You have heard that it was said…, “You shall not kill….”  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment’ ”.  Jesus here is fulfilling the law and the prophets by moving the basis for us being judged from our external actions to the hidden motives of our heart.

The Old Law under Moses, like the civil law that you and I live under today, is based on our external actions:  what can be seen and witnessed by others.  Under the Law of Moses and under civil law today, to murder another person is to be liable to death.  But how could the Law of Moses, or civil law today, see into the human heart to judge that someone is angry with his brother?  The only basis by which to judge seems to be external actions, whether violent actions motivated by anger, or even the simple furrow of one’s brow or the crinkling of one’s nose.

How, then, can Jesus’ words can be fulfilled:  namely, that “‘whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment’”?  How can the hidden human heart be judged?  There are two ways:  by God’s divine knowledge, and by man’s humble confession.

God sees everything.  God knows everything.  We learn this in First Grade catechism.  God can see into the fallen human heart.  Indeed, God sees your heart more clearly than you do.  While the fallen human person puts on many different blinders where his heart is concerned, God sees perfectly.  God sees neither through rose-colored glasses nor obscured by the darkness of sin.  The light of God’s vision simply sees everything as it truly is.

Of course, you and I often try to console ourselves with the convenient truth that we’ve got plenty of time before God ever judges us according to His all-seeing judgment.  God will judge you twice:  at the hour of your death (which the Church calls your own “particular judgment”), and also at the end of time (which the Church calls the “Final Judgment” or the “general judgment” of all mankind at once).  That gives us plenty of time to delay looking into our hearts at the roots of our sins.

During this delay, we can act like the character named Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.  The author of this trilogy was a devout Catholic and a daily communicant by the name of J. R. R. Tolkien.  He had a son who became a priest, and he said—about this trilogy—that it was meant to reflect the principles of his Catholic Faith.  Every Catholic who wants to grow in his faith will have The Lord of the Rings on his reading list.  Anyhow:  Tolkien in his day job was a professor of ancient languages, and he took the outline of the character Gollum—and the magic ring that he wielded—from an ancient Greek story called “The Ring of Gyges”.

In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum is a pitiable creature who has been warped by the power of this magical ring.  The ring’s most obvious power is to make whoever wears it invisible.  With this power, of course, you can do whatever you wish without being constrained by others.  In other words, the hidden desires of the heart can be given free reign.  For Gollum, this leads first to isolation, and finally, to a flaming death.  The moral of his death is that most, if not all of us, would come to the same end if we were granted the same power.

But in a sense, each of us does have this power.  We don’t have the power to turn invisible to the human eyes, but we do have the power to render our vices, motives and feelings invisible by cloaking them within the recesses of the human heart.  Jesus reminds us, however, that we can only do that until “the hour of our death”, and at that point God will reveal all that dwells in our heart.

Even in the short term, though, the strategy of cloaking our vices deep down in our hearts is flawed.  The heart, both physically and symbolically, is the source of life.  Jesus pointed out that “where your heart is, there also is your treasure.”[3] The human heart, by the design of nature’s God, is meant to be a fertile ground.  Whatever you place there will grow.  Whatever you put there will be pumped by the heart throughout the body, including into the mind.  The heart is, if you will, a breeding ground for other vices, and for the external actions that we work so hard at concealing, even from ourselves.

Be perfect through divine grace and human practice of the virtues

Fortunately, the heart is also fertile ground for the virtues and for God’s grace.  Once we’re willing to pull back the curtain from the vices we’ve hidden in our heart, we can take advantage of the second way in which the hidden human heart can be judged, which is by our own free choice.  We pull back the cloak behind which we’ve hidden our vices.  We examine our conscience concerning the actions and other failures of our moral life, and we confess them to God in the Sacrament of Confession.

Christ already has died for your sins.  The victory over your sins has already been won.  But when you cloak your vices and sins even from yourself, you won’t offer your vices and sins to Jesus, and if you don’t offer them, He will not, out of respect for your free will, take them from you.  He will leave you to live in your sins, and even—if you will it—to die in your sins.

In ten days, the Season of Lent begins.  Take advantage this year of the opportunities to “re-shape” your heart by means of God’s grace.  Take advantage of all the opportunities all around you to practice the virtues.  No matter what vices and sins may dwell in our hearts, it’s good to remember that God designed the heart—as He made the entire human person—to love.  Although you have the free will to love mere things rather than your neighbor and your God, your hope for salvation rests in the truth that God’s love is perfect even when yours is not, so that He will never give up on drawing you into His love.

[1] Joe Queenan, “A Word to the Wise”, Page C1 of the Wall Street Journal, February 8-9, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew 6:21.