• Lev 19:1-2, 17-18
• Psa 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
• 1 Cor 3:16-23
• Matt 5:38-48
During my first year of college, living a thousand miles from home, I found myself dealing with an unlikable, selfish housemate. Talking to my father on the phone one weekend, I expressed my frustrations and asked, “What should I do?” My father, a man who has never shied from confrontation, surprised me with his answer. “Pray for him,” he said. “When you really pray for someone, you cannot hate them.” I took his advice—rather grudgingly—and found my perspective changing and attitude improving. I saw that while my housemate was unlikable in many ways, I wasn’t always easy to live with either.
“You shall love your neighbor,” God told Moses and the people, “as yourself.” Whatever does that mean? Does it involve liking them? Having good feelings about them? Not necessarily, since true love is not about passions and emotions, but about our will. True love chooses to seek the good for others, which means, ultimately, that we want others—including our enemies—to know and experience the grace and mercy of God.
The philosopher Rémi Brague, in his book, On the God of the Christians (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), states, “God does not seek our happiness. He does not seek our unhappiness either. He seeks our good, which is to say: our sanctification. … Our good, in other words, is God himself.” God is holy and he is also, as St. John famously wrote, love (1 Jn 4:8). “Yet, if we love one another,” John also wrote, “God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 Jn 4:12). Perfection and love go hand in hand; holiness and the gift of self to others are inseparable.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, gives very specific and surprising directives regarding acts of love: turning the other cheek, giving away one’s garments, and going the extra mile—literally, in the context of being co-opted for such labor by Roman soldiers. The Law had allowed for retribution—“eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex 21:23-25)—but also sought to limit it; the punishment should fit the crime. Jesus, however, insists that true love is not shown by limiting retribution but through an expansion of charity and self-gift: “But I say to you, love your enemies…” Why? So that “you may be children of your heavenly Father,” filled with divine life.
Such love is exemplified not by mere absence of discord or hatred, but by communion, acts of goodness, and prayer. The goal of this agape love is perfection: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Interestingly enough, this is the same idea expressed to the rich young ruler: “If you would be perfect go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21; cf. Lk 6:35). In fact, these are the only two places where this particular word meaning “perfect” [teleioi] appears in the Gospels.
This perfection of divine sonship is found in following the perfect example of Christ, the Son of God, who reveals the radical nature of divine love by willingly dying on the Cross. Those who enter into and pursue this love, as Benedict XVI pointed out in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, embark on “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God…”
Our perfection, it must be emphasized, is a gift from God. In addition, the perfection of finite creatures cannot equal the perfection of the uncreated God. Rather, it comes through union with Jesus Christ; it comes by being filled with the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us. “Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation,” the fathers at Vatican II explained, “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, 11).
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 23, 2014 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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