“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus’ statements last week struck some readers as strange, his commandment this week seems downright ludicrous. Our heavenly Father is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. God is goodness itself; divine perfection is effortless. Humans, by contrast, are blind, weak and limited. We struggle to judge what is right in any given situation; perfection seems less like an ideal for which to strive and more like an indulgent fantasy that will never be realized.
Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Lv 19:2)
How has Christ led you in some way to greater freedom?
Do you find the Father’s generosity appealing?
How do you find it frightening or impractical?
In what way could living the Father’s example transform your family? Your neighborhood? Your workplace?
Jesus does not share these anxieties, because he is drawing on a very specific example of the Father’s perfection. “He makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” This is how Jesus understands the perfection to which he calls his followers. The Father pours out his gifts on his creatures regardless of whether or not they deserve it. We must pour out our forgiveness, compassion, honesty, understanding, generosity, effort and love on both the just and the unjust. Doing so makes us so much like the Father that Jesus calls us God’s very children.
To give such gifts to our brothers and sisters requires a lifelong struggle for freedom. Jesus saw the path to such freedom in the requirements of the Torah, but he also saw the need to intensify certain precepts for his followers in order to communicate this possibility. By sharpening the requirements of the Torah, Jesus makes them into challenging ideals that draw his disciples ever forward. As we work for greater freedom, we learn to let go of the petty forms of selfishness that stand in the way of our showing a generosity and freedom similar to the Father’s. In the Gospel readings last week and this, Jesus commands us to avoid anger, lust, adultery, duplicity, vengeance, parsimony, meanness and tribalism.
The self-control necessary to overcome these vices does not come easily, but it can grow vigorously in us when we set Jesus’ life and example as our goal. Like him, we must prefer following the Father’s example to nursing our trivial grudges or clinging to security through possessions and honors. In Jesus’ case, a life lived in pursuit of the Father’s example gave him the freedom to take up his own cross and liberate humanity from death and all death’s agents in the world. Our own struggle for a freedom like the Father’s puts us at Christ’s side. We conquer death and its effects in the world whenever we ourselves are kind to those who do not deserve it, forgive those who have wronged us, treat others as ends and not means or act honestly and generously for the good even of strangers and enemies.
Discord and hate have come out in force in recent years. People of good will everywhere have started to search for cultural transformations that will heal these rifts and quench these animosities. Witnessing in every way to the Father’s freedom and generosity is the contribution that every Christian is called to make to this search.