Jesus Does Not Issue Impossible Demands, But Rather Commands Us to Love as He Loved and to Become Like God.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
22 February 2014
To be perfect is both a command and a promise. We become perfect in becoming like God. Such a sublime gift is made possible by the Son of God becoming man, that we may be justified before God, that we may receive the Spirit of God, that we may share in the divine life of God. Yet while God does the divine work, we must do the human work by following Jesus Christ who commands us to live a life of authentic, Christian discipleship and love.
Someone once said that the great danger to Christians is not failure but success at things that don’t really matter. You may know all about botany, music, art, history, aerodynamics, math, electronics, politics, hobbies and so forth, but what do you know about God? Are you a successful Christian?
The beautiful thing about God, is he does not require of us magnificent accomplishments. He does not insist upon worldly success, but rather that we remain faithful. Our Lord Jesus Christ wants us to be successful at things that truly matter: he wants us to be his friends, to follow him by taking up our cross, and to live our lives as he did. Jesus wants us to give ourselves over to him, which is indeed a way of life involving our thoughts, deeds and words, and even the deeply held secrets of our hearts.
The subject of our gospel this Sunday (Mt 5:38-48) is about being an authentic Christian success; it is about living as a true follower of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, while it is about these things, it is also about more than that. It is about becoming perfect; it is about becoming like God. To be like God is to be perfect.
In our Gospel, Jesus Christ gives us five commands. These include turning the other cheek, which is a proscription against retaliation and the desire for vengeance (Mt 5:39); going beyond what someone asks of us, which is to be generous as Christ was generous (5:40-41); to give aid to those in need (5:42); to love and pray for our enemies (5:44); and to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
When we listen to these commands, we face two dangers, each of which can prevent us from taking the words of our Lord and Savior seriously and thus hinder our compliance with his desire for us. First, given our human weaknesses, it can seem as if these commands are impossible to meet, as if they are challenges far beyond the capabilities of the human person. Second, some people would say that Jesus was using hyperbole, exaggerating for effect. And if Jesus was exaggerating, then these commands are not really that serious, not really commands at all but merely helpful suggestions.
But they really are commands and Jesus is not exaggerating. So, it is important to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, thinking these commands are impossible, and on the other, dismissing them as lofty ideas that Jesus did not really mean as commands.
Let us take a little closer look at these commands of Jesus. What about “turn the other cheek?” Jesus tells us to offer no resistance to one who is evil. This commandment is often a source of misunderstanding. We can be under the impression that perhaps Jesus is teaching us to refrain from protecting ourselves from physical aggression or abuse or attack. However, Jesus is not issuing an absolute prohibition against self-defense.
The commandment to turn the other cheek is not meant to give license to injustice or violence. What Jesus is really getting at here, is that we are not to retaliate or seek vengeance. Love, meekness, and mercy is to govern our thoughts and actions. We are not to return evil for evil. If someone speaks an unkind word, we should not strike back. If someone has done wrong to you, forgive them. Return good for evil. That is what Christ did.
Next, Jesus commands us to “go the extra mile.” If someone presses us into service for one mile, go for two. This commandment can be defined as generosity. Our Lord Jesus was generous to the point of death, death on a Roman cross. So too should we be generous, even to those we dislike, even to those who treat us unfairly, even to those who we would call enemies.
Return Good for Evil
The third commandment we heard from our Lord today is to “love one’s enemies.” This is often viewed as one of the most challenging elements of today’s gospel with which to comply. How are we suppose to love our enemies?
First, let’s look at what loving our enemies does not mean. It does not mean you must forget the wrongs you have suffered. That is, forgiveness is not dependent upon forgetfulness. Yes, we must forgive, but it is against our human nature to forget. There is no requirement to erase your memory. Further, it does not mean we ignore all injustices or that every crime should go unpunished. Ignoring evil as if there are no consequences is not helpful. Loving one’s enemies does not equate to permissiveness.
Jesus really gets to the heart of what he means by love of enemies when he tells us to pray for our enemies. In praying for our enemies, we become like Jesus, who prayed for those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). In praying for your enemies, you will soon find they can become channels of God’s grace.
What Jesus is really getting at here is to replace hate with love. He’s teaching us about divine love; he’s teaching us to be like God. He’s showing us how to become children of God. To truly love means to seek the true and authentic good of another, even our enemies.
Be Like God
The fourth command Jesus gives us is to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” One of the first things that comes to mind is, how can I possibly be perfect like God is perfect? I’m only human! I’m a sinner! Is this, then, an impossible command?
Consider the word perfect. The Greek word for “perfect” the New Testament authors chose to use is the word “teleios,” which has to do with attaining one’s potential, one’s purpose, one’s end goal. The end goal of your life is to become like God and enjoy eternal communion with him. In a word, God is your end. Yet such an end is beyond your human capability. No one can snap their fingers and become like God; no one can share in the divine nature of God through any good work or by merely thinking about God or engaging in some type of spiritual endeavor. We can only become like God if God himself wills it, allows it, makes it a reality.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists a number of reasons why the Son of God became man. One of those reasons is in order that men might become like God (see CCC 460). St. Athanasius put it this way: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
In the First Letter of John we read: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (3:2).
The point is, it is God who makes you like himself in virtue of his own free gift. It is God who makes you perfect. In virtue of the sacrament of baptism, you are assimilated into Christ, incorporated into the Church, given the gift of the Holy Spirit and made a member of the divine family. In virtue of baptism, you share in the life of God.
Further, in receiving the Eucharist you are made like Christ as you receive his body, blood, soul and divinity—as you receive his divine life. In consuming the Risen Lord at the paschal banquet, you are made into him who you receive. The gift of the Eucharist, won at the cost of the death of our Savior, is the gift Christ gives of himself to you in order for you to become one with him and share his divine life. (See John 6).
To be perfect also means you must strive to develop your full potential according to the will of God. You must earnestly labor to do what is humanly possible in order to attain such an end. This means, then, that you must follow the commands of Christ. Rather than retaliate, love; instead of shirking a task or request, act with true generosity; give of yourself to those in need as did Christ; love and pray for your enemies as did the Savior of humanity on the cross.
Give yourself entirely to Christ, as he gave himself entirely to you; for while God does the divine work, you must for your part do the human work.
Live the sacramental life in the heart of the Church, in full communion with the Bride of Christ, that you may share in the divine life of God and be perfect.
To be perfect, then, is both a command and a promise.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.