Our Lord’s instruction to choose the way of perfection is an important reminder for all of us who call ourselves Christian. “Be perfect,” he tells us. Some of you might respond as I do to these words: I’m a sinner, Lord, conceived a sinner in my mother’s womb, and thanks to the concupiscence I inherited from Adam and Eve, I never have been and never can be perfect. So why are you telling me to do the impossible?
The command Jesus gives he offers in contrast to the ethics of the pagans. The pagans are practical when it comes to ethics. It is impractical to love those who will not love us back. A practical ethic asks why make an investment in something or someone who will not reciprocate the effort? The practical ethics are about balance: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Our pagan world functions on a practical ethics, one in which if you cross the line, they bring the hammer down on you, but if you don’t, they leave you alone. Consider how we travel on I-75 where the posted speed limit is 65 or 70 mph. If a trooper pulled me over for going 75 on the highway I’d be outraged, since everybody seems to be going 80 or 90. But it is impractical to give everyone who is technically speeding a speeding ticket, so the system tickets only those who have really crossed the line. We ticket super-speeders now.
Here’s a five-dollar word for you to remember: the pagan ethics Jesus opposes is a liminal system of ethics. Limina is the Latin word for threshold or boundary. The threshold is that piece of wood across a doorway on the floor that marks you’re inside the house or outside the house. Our system of ethics and laws is liminal: as long as you don’t do something beyond the threshold, the authorities will leave you alone. Students ask how low a grade can you get and still get an A? And from time to time, we move the threshold. Sometimes it is speeding enforcement or grading on a curve, but we have seen it be moved in critical subjects like the beginning of life and the end of marriage.
Jesus – and the law of his Church – is not liminal. It is what we might call aspirational. As Christians, we aspire to be like Jesus. Where our secular system of ethics says, “what’s the limit beyond which we have to act?” our religious laws ask, “what does perfection look like?” When Jesus says, “Be perfect,” he’s telling us the standard. We are Christians. We are sojourners here, residents of the City of God currently living in the City of Man. Our laws are not the laws of men but those of God. We may not meet the standard of perfection, but we should never abandon it. We should never redefine it, as the pagans do.
In the readings today, we get multiple examples of how to live these radical ethics:
- Turn the other cheek when you are hit in the face.
- Give your coat when somebody demands the shirt off your back.
- Go two miles when asked for one.
When we are operating on a pagan liminal system, this is just crazy talk. When we are operating on a Christian aspirational system, these are reminders of what we should strive for.
The love of Jesus is not conditional. He loves us no matter what we do or do not do. He knows we cannot be perfect because he knows that only God can repair the breach caused by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This is why he came to live with us and to die for us on the Cross on Good Friday. He offers us the gift of perfection – the gift of eternal life with him on his throne in Heaven – if we will acknowledge him as King and strive to serve him as he instructs. Fortified by the graces we receive in the Mass, let us go out and be merciful. Let’s be gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Let’s shoot for perfection. And when we stumble, let’s go to confession and then try again. For he does not deal with us according to our sins, but he loves us with the love that flows from the Cross.