Homily for June 20th, 2017: Matthew 5:43-48.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s a pretty high standard, isn’t it? Which of us can be perfect – especially if the standard of perfection is the Lord God himself? The only honest answer to that question is: none of us!
Here, and throughout the Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s gospel reading is taken, Jesus is plugging up the loopholes in the law. He tells us that the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” forbids even lustful thoughts; that “You shall not kill,” prohibits even angry words and thoughts.
Jesus is making it impossible for us to suppose that, by our good deeds and attempts to fulfill God’s law, we can establish a claim on God. We never have a claim on God. God has a claim on us. And it is an absolute claim.
Does this mean there is no reward for our attempts to be faithful to the Lord? Of course not. Jesus speaks of rewards often. He wants us to understand, however, that people with an entitlement mentality will never be satisfied with their reward. That’s the point of Jesus’ story about the laborers in the vineyard, all paid the same, though some had worked only an hour.
“They all get the same,” a wonderful old German Sister said when this story was read out in a community conference. She was pretty burned up about it. We should be burned up about it. If not, either we are not listening; or the story is so familiar that we don’t feel its sharp cutting edge.
That story, with its seemingly unjust conclusion, makes sense only if we ask: Who, at the end of the day, was happy? and who was unhappy? Clearly, the only happy workers were those who had worked but one hour. They knew the deserved little. They were bowled over to receive a full day’s pay.
Appeal, Jesus is saying, not to what you think you deserve; appeal instead to the Lord’s generosity. Learn to stand before Him saying the words of the hymn, “Rock of ages” (hardly known to Catholics, but a favorite of our Protestant brothers): “Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to your cross I cling.”
Jesus’ command to “be perfect” would be discouraging, but for a vital truth we must never forget. What is impossible for us is not impossible for God.
That was the angel Gabriel’s message to a teenaged Jewish girl, bowled over by the news that she was to be the mother of God’s Son: “Nothing is impossible for God.” (Luke 1:37).