So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. —Mt. 5:48
We hear more challenges in our Scripture today. Moses tells us to be holy because God is holy. Jesus uses the word “perfect” instead of “holy.” Whatever word you use that is quite a challenge. One that seems impossible. In her reflection on today’s scripture readings, Mary McGlone says perhaps our major problem is how we define holiness or godly perfection.
If we work backwards in today’s Gospel we hear about God’s unprejudiced treatment of the just and the unjust, those well-known for their goodness and those known for anything but love of God or others. The measure of God’s holiness or perfection seems to be the way God sends sun and rain to everybody. That must be what Jesus meant when he said: “Love your enemies…” And less that be left simply as pious theory, he gave three practical, surprising and laughter-inducing examples of just what that looks like in practice.
Jesus suggests that when somebody slaps you, you should turn the other cheek. The play in this bit of wisdom comes with the carefully chosen word “slap.” Jesus didn’t say “When your spouse beats you,” or “When the gang bullies you again,” instead, he said, “When somebody slaps you.” A slap is meant to demean rather than to draw blood. A slap doesn’t invite a fist fight; it’s a put-down, a power play in the social hierarchy. Note too that the slap Matthew portrays was backhanded (right hand to right cheek). Jesus was describing something intended to put the victim in his or her place rather than to incapacitate her or him. Turning the other cheek changed the game by having the victim say, “Hit me with integrity and then we’ll see.” Surely a few of the audience gasped as they pictured a browbeaten servant standing up like that to an arrogant overlord.
So too with walking the extra mile. A Roman soldier could force a local resident to carry his pack, but for only one mile. The offer to go a second mile robbed the uniformed bully of the initiative and put him in danger of being reported for going beyond the limits. By now Jesus’ audience was beginning to chuckle at the image of a Roman soldier pleading to get his pack back from a clever, audacious, pacifist rebel.
In the third example the power imbalance was economic. A poor person had borrowed money and all he had as collateral was his tunic, the outer garment that also served as his blanket at night. If the lender wanted to refuse to return the tunic until the loan was paid, he could get a group of collaborators to make the judgement on his behalf. The poor debtor then had no recourse except to make a prophetic point of the absolutely unadorned fact that such a law left some naked while others ended up possessing a grimy inner garment – laundry they didn’t need and hardly wanted to touch.
What does God’s holiness look like? It looks like a never-ending outreach to rebellious humanity, an ongoing invitation to communion, the incarnation of love, no matter the cost. It looks like a person who approached an oppressor with an attitude that says “You know we can be better than that!”
Presentation Parish has invited us to their Parish Mission on March 6, 7 & 8. The title of the Mission is “God’s Mercy Never Ends.” The presenters are Fr. Tom Allender, SJ and Tom Fisher. There are two sessions – either in the morning at 9:00 or evening at 6:30.