Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—5 July AD 2009
“Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father
Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English
The Gospel that we just read is a small part of our
Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, taken from Saint Matthew’s fifth and sixth
chapters, and this rather daunting admonition to “be perfect as your heavenly
Father is perfect” is the closing line to the fifth chapter. At
first glance, the idea of being perfect seems impossible, or nearly so for any
human being, other than our Lord Himself, or perhaps His Blessed Mother.
The honest man or woman will readily admit being considerably less than perfect
in many ways. And the idea of being as perfect as God the Father is almost
too much for words.
But when we consider perfection in God and perfection in
human beings, we will discover a most relevant distinction. In philosophy
we speak of God as “the necessary being” for everything else that exists
does so because God gave us existence—He is “necessary” in the sense that
without Him there would be nothing at all. Again, as the philosophers say,
He is the “prime mover” who set the universe in motion; He is the “first
cause,” He is the one who gives order and consistency to all that is.
Those who know God through His revelation also know Him as the fullness of
everything that is virtue: He is Truth; He is Justice; He is
Mercy; He is Love; and so forth. We might say that God doesn’t
possess perfection, but rather that He is perfection. (And
always was, and always will be.)
We human beings, on the other hand, can make no such claim.
In so far as we have any good qualities, we must always acknowledge a time when
we lacked those qualities. What God is, we can only hope to become.
That is to say that for men and women, perfection is always relative to what we
were before. Perfection for the adopted sons and daughters of God the
Father is a continuous process of becoming more and more like Him.
The epistle and Gospel today discuss only a part of that
process of perfection. Our Lord refers to one of the Commandments:
“Thou shalt not kill,” and develops it along the lines of perfection.
Clearly, murder is wrong. It may deprive a person not only of earthly
life, but also of the opportunity to earn a place in heaven. But our Lord
is telling us that the duty not to murder is the absolute minimum that is
required to keep that Commandment. If we are to pursue the process of
becoming perfect, far more is required of us.
The Commandment not to murder is perfected, first of all,
in not doing even lesser violence—no stone throwing, no using one’s fists or
feet to inflict pain. But even beyond that, perfection develops from a
mildness of manners that doesn’t even do violence in word or in gesture.
In this connection, perfection lies in striving to be at peace with each and
every one with whom we must deal. Saint Paul puts it nicely: “Be all
like-minded in prayer, compassionate, lovers of the brethren, merciful,
reserved, humble; not rendering evil for evil, or abuse for abuse, but
In the Sermon on the Mount, the call to
perfection is not limited to this one Commandment. We should recognize
that each one of the Commandments represents a minimum standard of behavior, and
that perfection comes only through the process of keeping each one of them in
every possible aspect.
Later on in the sermon our Lord reminds us of the
Commandment not to commit adultery. But then He urges perfection in this
Commandment by forbidding divorce., and forbidding the remarriage of those who
have divorced. He goes on to say that even looking at someone with lust
should be carefully avoided. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see
that religious soul seeking perfection will strive for purity in every way
according to his state in life.
All of the Commandments lend themselves to this sort of
reasoning and striving for perfection. “Thou shalt not bear false
witness.” That would suggest that we are bound not to do someone harm by
lying about him—and perhaps, that is the minimum. But the process of
perfection won’t begin in this regard until we resolve to be truthful in all
of our dealings, whether anyone is to be harmed or not. As Catholics we
must have a very special regard for the truth, for our Lord identified Himself
with it: “I am … the truth.”
Becoming more and more truthful is becoming more and more Christ-like.
“Thou shalt not steal.” Clearly, we are required
not to take what belongs to another. But the process of perfection
suggests something more. We must do no damage to another’s property.
Debts must be repaid, and must be repaid as rapidly as our means will allow.
We must not convert another person’s misfortune to our advantage.
“Keep holy the Lord’s day.” Catholics will, of
course, attend Mass if at all possible (there are excusing circumstances).
But Mass is only a part of the day—perhaps only one hour out of twenty-four.
Physical presence at Mass may satisfy the precept, but in the process of
perfection we will seek to unite ourselves as closely as possible to what
transpires on the altar. To pray the prayers in our missal; to recite or
sing those parts assigned to us; to come prepared with a knowledge of what the
Mass is; to come spiritually prepared, in the state of grace, so as to be able
to receive our Lord in Holy Communion. In English we speak of
“attending” Mass, but Spanish speakers get it far more correctly when they
speak of “assisting” at Mass. And the rest of the day ought also
reflect the sacred nature of Sunday—perhaps more prayer or spiritual reading,
and an absence of unnecessary commerce and trade.
And don’t forget that one can assist at Mass on the other
days of the week as well. Why not keep all seven days of the week as holy
to the Lord?
Now, I have mentioned only a few of the Commandments, but
obviously it is possible to conduct the same sort of analysis for all of them.
In this life we may never be perfect, but we must never tire of becoming
perfect. The Father in heaven is perfect in His existence; it is of His
very nature. We must become perfect in our efforts—for us, perfection is
a process. And if we make that process a continuous one in our lives we
will be perfect according to our human nature. In that way, at least
analogously, we can “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.”