PERFECTION IN CHRISTIAN LIFE IS EXPRESSED IN MERCY
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ DT 26, 16-19; PS 119:1-2, 4-5, 7-8; MT 5:43-48 ]
In the first reading, Moses told the people: “The Lord your God today commands you to observe these laws and customs; you must keep and observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.” To belong to the People of God, all that they needed to do was to observe all the commandments and customs with all their heart, soul and might. (cf Dt 6:5)
Why should we obey the commandments? Firstly, they demonstrate the wisdom of God. These commandments were meant to guide the people to live a righteous life so that there would be harmony among the peoples. By so doing, Moses said, “this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Dt 4:6-8) Those who do not obey the Word of God or use the Bible for guidance in their moral and daily life are those who pay lip service to the Word of God. St Paul makes it clear “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16f) The fact that many of us pick and choose those parts of the scripture that we agree with and ignore the rest that we do not agree with shows that we believe in ourselves and not the Word of God.
Secondly, obedience is the concrete manifestation of acknowledging God as our Lord. “You have today made this declaration about the Lord; that he will be your God, but only if you follow his ways, keep his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and listen to his voice.” Obedience is always the expression of love and trust. When we obey, it should never be out of fear or obligation. Rather it should be an act of love for one who loves us. This is what Jesus Himself said, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (Jn 14:31) Indeed, God does not command obedience from us before He first shows us His love. If the Lord could command the Israelites to obey the commandments, it was because He had shown and demonstrated His love and power in delivering them from the hands of the Egyptians. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:4-6)
Thirdly, obedience to the laws makes us His people. “The Lord has today made this declaration about you; that you will be his very own people as he promised you, but only if you keep all his commandments.” When we live a life of integrity and honour, when we live a harmonious and peaceful life, we show ourselves to be the People of God and “then for praise and renown and honour he will set you high above all the nations he has made, and you will be a people consecrated to the Lord, as he had promised.” Israel was chosen to be a model nation, a people that lived under the laws of God so that they could “live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” It is to our benefit that we observe the laws of God.
Yet in spite of the beauty of the laws of God, it is practically impossible to keep them perfectly. The law is good but it does not mean we will be able to keep them perfectly just because we know that it is good. The truth remains that we are weak and we have a wounded nature because of the sin of our ancestors, which is perpetuated in us. We know that the law is good and yet because of human selfishness, weakness and fear, we break the commandments.
That is why the laws cannot save us. They are written on tablets, not on our hearts. They can only point us to what is right and wrong but they cannot give us the capacity to do them. We find ourselves incapable of resisting temptations. Even when we try to observe them, we fall into the sin of pride and ego. Either we become self-righteous, thinking that we are better than others, or we live double lives, appearing to be good and holy before others. Indeed, many of us are hypocritical in the way we live because we are so concerned about what people think of us rather than what God thinks of us.
What is needed is therefore the mercy and grace of God rather than perfection in observing the laws. It was on account of knowing the love and mercy of God in Christ’s passion and resurrection that St Paul got the strength to do good and to die to self rather than seeking to find perfection through the laws. He wrote, “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:8-11)
This is what the gospel wants to underscore as well. When the Lord said, “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He is not expecting us to live a life without sin and imperfection. This would be an impossible demand on us. But Jesus expects us at least to practice compassion and forgiveness to those who are weak and have sinned against us. He said, “You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is what perfection consists of, loving our neighbours including our enemies by caring for them and by praying for them. We are called to forgive them the way our Lord did when He was on the cross, by excusing and praying for us. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) In this way, we show ourselves to be truly sons and daughters of God because we reflect the goodness of God, because “He causes the sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike.” God’s love is for all, regardless of whether we are bad or good.
Indeed, if we do not show our love to all regardless of who they are, then we cannot claim ourselves to be God’s children since we do not acknowledge others as such because we do not treat them accordingly. Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not?” So being a Christian is not caring for fellow Christians only. This is exclusivity and elitism. Most Catholic celebrations are within and among their own members. Do we take the trouble to invite those who are non-Christians to our functions so that they could come to know the Lord’s love through us? A Christian must be outgoing and reaching out to others. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case in many of our churches and church organizations. We are in danger of isolating ourselves from the larger community. This is not the kind of evangelical and missionary spirit that a Catholic should have.
Of course, this does not mean to say the laws are irrelevant. They remain our guide in living a life of wisdom and discernment. The psalmist is right to say, “They are happy whose life is blameless, who follow God’s law! They are happy who do his will, seeking him with all their hearts. You have laid down your precepts to be obeyed with care. May my footsteps be firm to obey your statutes.” But we observe them not in a slavish manner. We must observe them with wisdom and understanding, with love and compassion, without falling into legalism and self-righteousness on one hand; or be laxed and lawless on the other hand. Christian perfection ultimately is to live the law of love and compassion. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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