|The Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico, 1436 - 1443.|
Fr. Charles Irvin
Diocese of Lansing
Way back in 1865 Lewis Carroll published a novel for children. Alice in Wonderland was its name. In that novel we find Alice one day wandering around in a dream world. She stops and asks a cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I should go from here?” The cat replies: “That depends a good deal on where you want to be.” Alice said: “Oh, I don’t much care.” With that the cat responds: “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.” But Alice persisted: “But I want to get somewhere.” Whereupon the cat, with a wry grin, said: “Oh, you are sure to do that!”
We can be a lot like Alice, saying “Oh, it doesn’t much matter” to a whole lot of things. Like it doesn’t much matter which church you go to. It doesn’t much matter what you believe, and so forth. Pretty soon nothing much matters at all. Eventually our lives don’t matter, and we’ll be just like Alice drifting aimlessly in our own little wonderland going nowhere!
Goals are important, otherwise our living is aimless. Aiming at a goal is vitally necessary if we’re going to have any sense at all concerning the path we are taking as we journey through life. If you’re downhill skiing and all you do is fix your eyes upon the tips of your skis you will certainly fall. But if you look ahead and fix your eyes on a point ahead where you want to go your body will make all of the necessary mid-course corrections and you won’t fall.
Jesus gives us a goal today. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Some will say: “Well, what kind of a goal is that? Nobody can be equal to God anyway. So what’s the point?” How can we, mere mortals that we are with all of our faults and failures, be as perfect as God is perfect? Good point. It’s sort of like telling a child who has just learned simple arithmetic to solve a problem requiring calculus.
We need, of course, to look deeper into the words of Jesus. He uses an Aramaic word (the language He spoke) that carries the idea of completeness in the word “perfect.” Be ye complete as your Heavenly father is complete, is what Jesus is saying. Love completely as God loves completely. Be ye mature and grown up as your heavenly Father is fully mature in His love and fully mature in the way He treats others. He loves completely, without boundaries.
It’s all a matter of struggling toward maturity. Oh, you can have sixty candles on your birthday cake and they mean only that you’re growing older, not that you are mature. Sixty candles on your birthday cake only count the number of years that have passed since you were born; they don’t necessarily measure completeness, fullness in loving, or fullness of maturity as a human person.
There are ways of measuring growth, the easiest being size. Children need larger clothes each year as they grow. Another measurement is there depth of knowledge. We can grow in what we know. But the greatest challenge is to measure the breadth and depth of a person’s love.
“An eye for an eye” was law that limited the extent of retribution one could inflict upon another. It limited the repayment of evil for evil. At least it put limitations on physical carnage inflicted upon another. Revenge remained, however, the motive. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” does not eliminate vengeful behavior.
Loving one’s neighbor was a law of somewhat expanded love, although it was still a limited love. Loving one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self has been limited all too often by our narrowing of the scope of the word “neighbor”. Just who is my neighbor, we ask?
That law is still very much in force today. “America for Americans” is the big slogan of our day. Keep the foreigners out is the real message. It’s really so silly, isn’t it? Just who are the real Americans, anyway? Aren’t they the natives who were here before our ancestors, European foreigners, arrived on these shores? And what about all those Chinese and Irish people who built the transcontinental railways that made our country such an economic power in the world? And what about the Blacks that were shipped over here as slaves to give our economy the cheap labor, labor we used in order to amass vast wealth from the productivity that was sweated out of their backs?
No, the law of limited love, the law based on our narrowly defined word “neighbor,” is quite adolescent. It’s not fully mature; it’s not what Jesus was talking about.
“Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” has to do with unlimited love, unlimited caring, fully mature and fully developed caring and loving in all our relationships with others. It has to do with the perfection found in our full maturation.
In measuring growth and personal development the only growth that mattered to Jesus was a person’s love — its length and breadth, its height and depth of one’s love. In other words, the measurement is growth in maturity. And the only standard of measurement, the only ruler or yardstick that Jesus gives us is God’s way of loving — the length, breadth, height and depth of God’s love. And until we get there we have more to perfect within us.
Unless we see that and grasp that we’ll be just like Alice, wandering about in our own little Wonderland, aimless and without purpose. As Yogi said: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”