|Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:38–48. In this passage, Jesus continues His radical teaching on Christian discipleship with the final sets of antitheses. He summarizes this section with the call to “perfection”. These antitheses and the summary call to perfection offer deep insights into the challenge a Christian disciple faces so as to live in the Kingdom of God.|
The first teaching stresses that love does not retaliate. It is a natural and human tendency to retaliate when others have wronged us. Efforts were made in the Old Testament to limit retaliation so that retribution did not exceed the original injury (Ex 21:24, Lv 24:20, and Dt 19:21). These previous regulations of the Law were an attempt to prevent the cycle of violence from escalating. Jesus offers a different way of breaking the cycle of violence that is based on non-retaliation rather than limited response. In these five situations, Jesus addresses a variety of ways in which disciples are called to be people who consider the interests of others above their own. The examples that are used are somewhat extreme but follow the same pattern. First, a situation is presented in which another person is perceived as an aggressor who interrupts one’s own personal endeavors. Second, the solution Jesus offers calls for disciples to respond, not by insisting on their own rights but by considering the needs and interests of those whom they perceive to be the aggressor. Thus, there is a clear movement in this teaching away from simply not retaliating (passive resistance) toward actively reaching out and doing good for the one who has wronged us (turn the other cheek, give the cloak, go the extra mile, and so forth). Each of us has people in our lives who sometimes appear to be aggressors when it comes to laying claim to our time, attention, energy, resources, affection, effort, and so on. As disciples, Jesus expects us to consider their needs first rather than asserting our rights or retaliating for any perceived infringement on our lives. This Christian response is not easy and requires that we rise above our natural human responses so as to mirror the supernatural love of God. Such love is not a sign of weakness or intimidation but rather a decision to seek the good of the other no matter what the circumstances.
Who lays claim to your time, energy, attention, resources, affection, or effort so as to require sacrifice from your life?
Whose needs do you put before your own?
When have you put a stranger’s needs above your own interests?
Who puts your needs before theirs?
What is a situation you are facing now in which you need to move from a passive response of non-retaliation to an active response of reaching out and doing good for the other?
The second teaching stresses that love knows no limits. All of us find it easy to love those who love us. Those are the people close to us, and we readily call them our neighbors. The challenge of discipleship is to love those who are not close to us or even those who are at odds with us. The term “enemy” could mean national enemies, competing religious groups, corporate adversaries, or those against whom you have interpersonal ill feelings. Jesus reminds us that God provides rain and sun for everyone including the good and the bad. He then challenges disciples to see others as God sees them and have the same love and care for them that the Lord does. To love someone is to seek what is good for the other person in the eyes of God and not merely to do what the other person wants. The reality is that people do not always, or even often, desire what is holy for their own lives. Doing good for someone means that we help them in their journey to God and seek their eternal salvation. When we do that, then we act like God and can be called “Sons of God” or “Children of your Heavenly Father” (Dt 14:1). It is this quality of love and charity for one’s enemies that distinguishes a Christian from someone who is merely a nice person. Christians are called to witness a heroic and faith-based love that goes beyond what a non-believer is capable of. It is only by understanding the universality of God’s love and choosing to demonstrate unconditional love in our lives that we can be such distinctively Christian witnesses. Our Christian tradition declares, “Love joins the lover to the beloved and of the two makes but one thing.”
Who loved you when you didn’t expect it or deserve it?
Love forms us into the people we are. Who are the three primary people whose surprising acts of love have formed your life (even acts from a stranger)?
Who are the people who most need your love now to form them?
When have you shown kindness towards those who are your “enemies”?
When have you been called to do what is good for another person even though they didn’t want it? What are some of the excuses you use so as to dismiss yourself from the obligation to show selfless love for others in their time of need?
Finally, when Jesus tells us that we should be “perfect” as our Heavenly Father is perfect, He is not telling us to seek perfectionism in the way our contemporary world understands it. Rather, He is summarizing the entire message of Matthew 5:21–48. Jesus knows that we are people who live in the midst of a broken and fallen world. Things will not always be as they should be or as we want them to be. Our situations require us to discern the relative values at stake in every situation and to respond as best we can while being guided by the teachings of the Gospel. Sometimes Christians can think that living a life of holiness requires that they remove themselves from that world, but that’s not the message of Jesus in this passage. Christians are called to be deeply immersed in a fallen world and to act in a God-like way in the midst of that messiness. The command to be “perfect” really means to be “whole” in the sight of God. It means to serve the Lord with single-minded devotion in everything that we do and to whole-heartedly carry out the Lord’s will in difficult situations. By living this single-minded devotion to act as God would act in every situation, we will fulfill the commandment of Deuteronomy 18:13, “You must be altogether sincere with the Lord, your God.” Christians are called to imitate Jesus who immersed Himself in a very imperfect world yet witnessed the values of the Kingdom of God in how He dealt with the situations He faced. Christians live their lives manifesting the same values as God who re-defined what is “great”, “honorable”, “powerful”, “loving”, and “admirable” in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord. The Greek word teleos is used to describe the perfection to which Jesus calls us. This term really means the fullness of what God intends for our lives. To be “perfect” in this sense of the word is to live our lives so that we become who God has destined us to be in Christ. The beauty of our Christian identity is that through our baptism, Christ dwells in us. Our “perfection”, then, is to let Christ reign in each moment of our lives. By becoming who God has destined us to be in Christ Jesus, we allow His life to be perfected in us. The Greek word teleos can also be translated as “accomplished”, “completed”, or “fulfilled” instead of “perfect”. We could easily translate this final verse of this passage using any one of those previous alternate meanings and so gain a complementary understanding of our Lord’s teaching.
How do you evaluate situations in the light of the Gospel?
When do you find yourself wanting to be removed from a messy situation rather than addressing it in a God-like way?
What are the temptations you face to handle situations in a non-God-like way?
What distorted value in your life does God want to re-orient so as to help you conform more perfectly (wholly) to the person of Jesus?
How is your understanding enriched by considering the alternative translations offered in this reflection of our Lord’s final commandment to be perfect?
The premise is accredited to St. Augustine and well developed by XVI Century Spanish mystics such as St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle,
XXVIII, 1 and Diego de Estella, Meditaciones devotísimas del amor de Dios,
vol. I, Barcelona: Subirana, 1886, p. 73, Chap. LXXVI.