The Gospel for this seventh Sunday in Ordinary time ends with a real challenge.
“Be perfect just as God is perfect”
Does God really expect us to be perfect?
Some might answer yes, and some might answer no.
I believe the answer is Yes, because it comes right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus has laid out the basics of what it will mean to be his disciple. He has enumerated the Beatitudes, he has admonished hisfollowers on how to deal with anger, he has challenged them to rethink the prevailing wisdom of “an eye for an eye” and to love their enemies.
It is in this context that he says “Be perfect.”
But, did you know that this word we translate as “perfect” is only used twice in all of the four Gospels, and both timesby Matthew — here in the Sermon on the Mount and in Chapter 19 when he speaks to the “rich young man” telling him that keeping the commandments is not enough, he must also share his wealth if he wants to be perfect.
The rich young man walks away from this challenge. His answer to the question, Does God really expect us to be perfect? — and perhaps our answer — is a resounding NO. The young man walks away sad. He might be thinking,and perhaps we may be thinking, Nobody’s perfect!
We’ve all heard those words. We use them to defend ourselves, when we have taken a misstep. We use them to assure others that we understand the mistake they have made. We say, “Don’t worry about it, nobody's perfect.”
Those words might help when the mistake is small, when it can be easily repaired.
But what about the big things in life? What about when one person takes the life of another? If that other person is someone I love, “Nobody’s perfect” will NOT be my immediate response.
I have had the privilege to accompany people who are in just that situation — people who have lost loved ones to violence and murder. At Catholic Mobilizing Network, we are working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice. But we realize we can’t do this work without listening to the voices of those who have experienced harm most intimately.
As I have walked with some of these individuals, I have learned that the Gospel challenge to be perfect is neither easy, nor is it a one-step process. A man I know whose daughter was violently murdered shared that his first response was to numb the pain with alcohol. It was only after more than a year that he came to realize that rage iswhat caused his daughter’s death, and that his rage is exactly what was killing him. He began a long, slow journey to forgiveness that led him eventually to meet the killer’s father, and to realize that they both shared the pain of having lost a child — one to a violent murder, the other to execution.
From him, I have learned that being perfect is a slow process that happens when I am open to the inspirations of God’s spirit and willing to have my assumptions challenged.
A mother who lost her son to murder shared that almost immediately, she realized that her surviving son, and many other family members and friends were all looking to her for how to respond. She knew that she had to model Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” in order to prevent more violence and revenge from seeping through her family and her community.
This woman taught me that the struggle to be perfect can be contagious. Just as she felt called to model theforgiving love of Jesus, I have become more deeply aware of how my attitudes and behavior can influence those around me — for better or for worse.
Some of the most difficult stories I have heard are from folks who were told they must not have really loved theirmurdered family member if they were not seeking revenge and asking for the death penalty for the murderer.
These individuals have taught me that the struggle to be perfect can be counter-cultural. And that it takes courage to challenge the prevailing expectations.
A woman whose mother and two cousins were among those killed in the Mother Emmanuel Church shooting inCharleston, South Carolina in 2015 had this to say: “The most powerful thing that you can do for family members of murder victims is simply to offer authentic and nonjudgmental presence. We just need to know that we have a community around us that is about love.”
From her I have learned that I need support in my struggle to be perfect. I can’t do it alone.
As you can see, each of these folks has taught me something about this Gospel call to be perfect. So, my answer to the question, Does God really expect us to be perfect? is YES!
YES, with the understanding that becoming perfect is a life-long process, that it happens in community with others, and that it often takes courage to challenge the prevailing wisdom.
YES, you and I are called to be perfect. I invite each of us to trust that God’s grace is working in us and that today we can take at least one step in that lifelong process to be perfect.
Sister Eileen Reilly, SSND
Sister Eileen Reilly, SSND
Sister Eileen Reilly, a native of Boston, has been a School Sister of Notre Dame (SSND) for over 50 years. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, an MA in Peace and Justice Studies, and an MDiv from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. Eileen taught in elementary and secondary schools, served as a Campus Minister at Northeastern University and worked as Pastoral Associate in both Richmond, VA and Gaithersburg, MD.
She ministered as the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Coordinator for her congregation and was the SSND NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Representative at the United Nations for nine years.
While living in Connecticut, Eileen had the opportunity to accompany a man who was eventually executed by the state of Connecticut. This strengthened her passion for abolishing the death penalty and led her to her present ministry at Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice.
In that position, Eileen collaborates with Murder Victims’ Family Members to amplify their courageous stories of resilience, dignity and hope. In addition, she animates Catholic Sisters to become more involved in the mission of CMN.
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