My Homily for the Seventh Sunday of the Year, 2023, Year A
Last week we heard Jesus tell his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount, “… unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” And then he pointed out some of the commandments saying, “You have heard that it was said” then quotes a command from the OT and then he adds, “but I say to you,” and he lists the ways that we must now obey these commandments. Today we hear more of his preaching from the Sermon on the Mount where he continues to tell us how to obey the commandments so that our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees. And then today’s gospel passage ends with a command that seems impossible for us to obey—to be perfect. What’s going on here?
Be perfect. That’s the seemingly impossible command that Jesus gives us. Those are the words that jumped off the page at me. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. But none of us, if we’re being honest, will ever say that we are perfect. Our inconsistent behavior in the world is an example of imperfection. At home or in our workplace or anywhere in our neighborhood we can be good one day, and then be a total jerk the next. A measure of perfection that is really close to home is our prayer life, where we demonstrate how imperfect we can be. We don’t pray with full attention to what we’re saying and we let our minds wander to other topics.
Even the people we admire for their virtue have to deal with distractions. In one of his talks Fr. Chad Ripperger mentions how he was once distracted when elevating the Host. He celebrates the TLM exclusively, I think. As the Host was elevated the thought entered his mind about the large paws of his neighbor’s cat!
I listened to a YouTube rebroadcast of a radio show called The Catholic Hour, which featured a much younger Monsignor Fulton Sheen from the 1940s. He tells a story of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was once traveling through the French countryside with a local farmer. The farmer noticed that, rather than marveling at the beauty of the countryside, Abbot Bernard kept his head bowed and his eyes on the ground. Curiosity got the better of him. So he asked the Abbot why he kept his eyes focused downward. St. Bernard replied, “I don’t want the sights of the countryside to distract me from my prayer.” The farmer began to boast that he himself never got distracted during prayer.
“Really?” Saint Bernard replied. “Then let’s make a bet. I’ll let you have my horse if you can say a single Our Father aloud without distraction.” The farmer thought this would be easy and agreed to the bet. He began praying, “Our Father, who are in heaven…thy will be done… Give us this day our daily br..,” he stopped, turned to Saint Bernard, and asked, “Do I get the saddle as well?”
How can we be perfect when we can’t always pray without distraction? I first started thinking about these words of Jesus when a seminary professor pointed out that Jesus meant what he said, that we must be perfect.
That word “perfect” appears elsewhere in scripture. In James 1:4 it supports Jesus’ meaning, “let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” If you were to ask me what my favorite bible translation is, I would have to say, none of them. All translations are more or less, paraphrases of the text of the original language. Sometimes when the meaning needs to be clear I will check many different English translations that I own to help me get the authentic meaning of a passage. But for today, finding the biblical use of the word “perfect” was a case where I had to go back to the original language. I don’t know Greek, but I have found a couple of interlinear translations of the Greek New Testament online. This is what I found. The Greek word translated as “perfect” is teleios, which can mean perfect, complete, accomplished, or finished. In Catholic philosophy the word teleology comes from the same root. It means the study of causality, of final causes. Teleios is also the same word that Jesus uses later in this gospel when the rich young man asks him “what do I still lack?” Jesus tells him, "If you would be teleios, perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, then come follow me."
Perfect union with God cannot be attained in this life. All of us on earth are imperfect in some measure because we lack the happiness for which we are destined. The Christian life is a journey toward perfection. When we commit sin we have it forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. Our guilt is forgiven, but we still make satisfaction for the temporal punishment of our sins. We either satisfy this obligation on earth, or after death, in Purgatory. On earth we can offer up any physical suffering to this end, or by praying prayers to which the Church has attached an indulgence. Once this is satisfied, then we achieve heaven, and we become a saint. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it this way:
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
Jesus’ words seem to indicate that he does not want us to give up in our quest to be with him in heaven. Note that Jesus never tells us to succeed. But he does tell us to strive after holiness and not to give up. That is the definition of sanctity, to strive after holiness. And what is holiness? To identify and do the will of God. Don’t be discouraged when you slip up and fall into sin. Pray for the grace of perseverance; pray for the grace of final perseverance. Get up when you fall. Ask for the grace to do better next time. We ask for this through prayer. Without prayer, we go nowhere. We pray in order to be converted from evil to good, from good to better, from better to perfection.
The Lord told us in the first reading, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” St. Paul told us today, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”
The same St. Bernard whom I referred to in the story earlier had this to say: He who neglects prayer “has no horror of himself, because he feels not his miseries.” Those who feel not their miseries will destroy themselves. Without prayer, we go nowhere.
If you want to be perfect, strive for holiness, pray to know the will of God for you, what God wants you to do, and don’t give up. Pray for the grace of final perseverance. Need God’s encouragement? Read today’s Responsorial Psalm, Ps 103.
Here's a final quote from a Cistercian of the early 20th century, Fr. Vital Lehodey, from his book The Ways of Mental Prayer:
A soul is perfect when it is an exact copy of the divine model. Nothing, then, is so important as to keep Our Blessed Lord continually
before our eyes in order to contemplate Him,
in our hearts in order to love Him,
in our hands in order to imitate Him.