Strive for Perfection

Matthew 5:43-48
1Kings 21:17-29 / Ps 51

Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5:48)

God loves even those whom we reject
For their perceived inequities;
He wants our love to be perfect
By discarding our prejudices.

(Jesus said,) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 43-48)

Reflection

If we do not have heaven in mind, we cannot strive for perfection. The distractions of this world prevent us from thinking about and preparing for the life beyond. Man seems to become short-sighted when he is well-off and feeling self-sufficient. He loses the wisdom to consider the inevitability that all power, prestige, position, and possessions are temporary, and can easily be taken away. In fact, these are the things that prevent us from seeking the perfection that our Lord Jesus is talking about. These are the things that alienate us from the love of God and other men.

One of the things I have been struggling with myself is my prejudice against people whose lifestyle I perceive to clash with my own set of values. Even though I believe that love is universal, some pre-conditioned biases die hard, and stand as obstacles in my faith journey towards achieving the true essence of love. I once sent this text message: ‘There must be no limitation as far as loving is possible; love only comes to perfection when it includes the unlovable.’ That means although love involves a choice (to love or not), once we choose to love, we have no choice but to include those whose company we would rather avoid. Especially a few who are so full of themselves that you always have to defer to them, and take care not to offend their sensitive feelings all the time. And that always takes some effort.

In the first reading, we read about King Ahab, who, because of the influence of his evil wife, Jezebel, was one of the most corrupt and evil kings of Israel. When Elijah the prophet confronted him with his sins and he repented, God immediately forgave him, and held back the punishment that he deserved.

Jesus wants His disciples to be different from the rest of the pack. It is not an exaggeration to say that we can be perfect if we believe His words in Mat.5:48. With the power of the Holy Spirit, we can reflect the qualities of God, and by His grace, in time “become a new creation.” (2 Cor.5:17) We can never approach the perfection of God, of course, but if we constantly aspire for His divine qualities, like tolerance, forgiveness, patience and long suffering, and obey all His teachings, He will make us shine like a mirror to reflect His goodness to others.

Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness; in the greatness of Your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always. (Psalm 51)

Forgiveness

Matthew 5:38-42
1 Kings 21:1-16 / Psalm 5

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him also.
(Matt. 5:39)

It doesn’t mean that we are weak
If we should turn the other cheek;
Remember when you feel aggrieved,
Your best revenge is to forgive.

(Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

Reflection

As one always prepared and willing to serve in the ministry of evangelization, I have always followed this verse in today’s Gospel: “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.” (Mt.5:41) So when a dear friend who used to head the Divine Mercy Apostolate in Davao asked me to give a talk in their assembly on the topic of “Forgiveness” (with barely a few days to prepare), there was no hesitation to accept this privilege and opportunity to serve the Lord.

Forgiveness is an act of God’s grace that has both divine and human dimensions. In the divine dimension, it restores sinners back to their relationship with God when they repent. We cannot live in peace outside the sacrament of repentance; without it, our lives as Christians would be “out of synch” and tormented with guilt. In the human dimension, we are obliged to forgive those who have wronged us by acts and/or words of reconciliation and acceptance. We cannot expect to receive God’s forgiveness unless we in turn forgive those who have hurt us. Jesus teaches us that this is the primary condition for receiving God’s forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer and in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt.18:12-35) this is clearly qualified. Love is the essence of forgiveness. Jesus demonstrated this powerfully on the cross, when He asked forgiveness for His executioners. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

We have learned that genuine forgiveness also means complete forgetfulness. As the author, Robert Browning wrote, “It is good to forgive, but it is best to forget.” Many great men were noted for appreciating the value of forgiveness. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive; forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” My favorite quote about forgiveness is from the famous author, poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once described the greatness of a man as one whose “heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong.”

By going an extra mile for another community, I realized that in a short period of time, I had grown wiser in learning about forgiveness from Scriptures and from the great minds of the past. God indeed rewards those who strive to know Him better.

You, o Lord, are the Source of all wisdom. Thank You for enlightening us about the values of service, repentance, and forgiveness. May these values remain with us all the days of our lives. Amen.

Taking Oaths

Matthew 5: 33-37
1Kg 19:19-21 / Psa 16:1b-2a,5,7-10

I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
(Matthew 5:34-35)

Lord, don’t let my mouth be debased
When I am mad and prone to swear;
Let my lips utter only praise,
Or give hope to those in despair.

Jesus said to His disciples, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5: 33-37)

Reflection

In the ancient times, people took oaths to bind themselves to an agreement or undertaking. Thus, an oath was taken to seal a covenant that one entered into with his neighbor, or even with his adversary. We see an example of this in the vows exchanged between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba, (Gen.21:22-34) which served to end a dispute between them, and to establish a covenant. Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned.’ And Abraham said, ‘I swear it.’ In the same book, we also read about the covenant between Jacob and Laban, his father-in-law, who had pursued him into the highlands of Gilead. Laban said, “Come, then, we will make a pact, you and I; the Lord shall be a witness between us” (Gen.31:44).

Stories abound in the Bible relating how the patriarchs in the Old Testament always kept their oaths. The history of Israel, however, is replete with God’s Chosen people constantly breaking their covenants with Yahweh, their God, forgetting their pledges of loyalty, turning to other gods, and indulging in debauchery and pagan rituals. Taking oaths had become meaningless, and because they were taken lightly, the people lost their integrity in the succession of so many broken promises. Worse, oath-taking deteriorated into swearing. This was the reason why our Lord forbade His disciples from taking oaths or swearing. A simple “yes” or “no” would suffice for people who value their integrity. In our Brotherhood, we have made it our cause to promote honesty in all our dealings (“Be honest even if others are not”). In so doing we do not have to bind ourselves with oaths or swearing. We are in fact happy to note that this is what sets us apart from those who use expletives in casual conversations. These are the people that our Lord referred to when He said, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of his mouth.” (Mt.15:11) In the Book of Proverbs, it says in chapter 10, verses 19 – 20: “He who restrains his lips does well. Like choice silver is the just man’s tongue.”

In His teachings, our Lord included swearing as one of the sins He particularly condemned. This is because it is usually a lying tongue that covers its deceit with an oath. Significantly, e His lesson on taking oaths follows His condemnation of adultery and divorce (Mt.5:27-32), serious sins that violate the sacred oath of marriage. God has given mankind many lessons in Biblical history that show the dire consequences of violating His covenants. Fidelity in our oaths, written or oral, is most pleasing to God, because it always reflects His divine nature. This, we believe, is the main reason why couples who are faithful to each other enjoy the blessings of the Lord in many other things other than the joys of a happy marriage.

“LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy mountain? He who walks with integrity, doing what is right, and speaks truth in his heart . . . Who keeps an oath despite the cost.” (Psalm 15:1-2,4) Lord, help us to restrain our tongues when we are angry and prone to curse. Let our lips open only to give praise, commend others, or to spread Your Word. Amen.

Twin Evils: Adultery and Divorce

Matthew 5: 27- 32
1 Kgs 19:9a,11-16/Ps 27:7-9,13-14

He who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
(Matthew 5:28)

As metal is no match to rust,
The most corrosive sin is lust;
Guard your thoughts and tame your eyes,
Avoid the grip of this devious vise.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5: 27-32)

Reflection

After His discourse on the 5th commandment, Jesus now expounds the sixth commandment. Both of these commandments concern the grievous sin of murder. While the former is about killing the body, adultery is about killing the soul. While the former commits the sin against another, the latter inflicts the crime upon himself. That is why it is better to lose a sinful part of one’s body than to have his entire existence consigned to damnation because of it.

Our Lord made His point very dramatic in order to impress the gravity of the carnal sin, but I doubt if He was merely being hyperbolic. He really meant what He said. One who degrades the body of another by leering looks and lascivious thoughts just as surely harms his own body far more than actually gouging out his eye or cutting off his hand.

It is the sanctity of marriage that Jesus is protecting here. This love relationship is what Satan wants to destroy ever since Christ instituted it. He employs the twin scourges of adultery and divorce to this end. Jesus knows how vulnerable we are to the devil’s tricks, and how desirable to the human eye is the forbidden fruit of fornication. That is why he wants us to nip the temptation in the bud when the occasion arises, and if need be, sacrifice an eye and a hand to preserve our eternal inheritance. St. Paul echoes this in his letter to the Corinthians: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9, 10).

Many of our young people today have fallen prey to the so-called ‘sexual revolution’, giving rise to the spread of transmittable diseases like AIDS and venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies and abortion. Their elders like to point their finger at the pornographic bent of the media, movies, and the internet. But have we ever seriously considered the example that we might be giving? We hesitate to teach them time-honored values like chastity lest we are branded as “old fashioned”. We have to let them know that the One we follow is and will never be “old fashioned”. Every time we welcome Him into our hearts in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we make sure that we are providing Him with a clean chamber, worthy of His pure nature. Once we have given Him a proper place within, then we can be sure that nothing impure can take up residence there again. This is an important lesson that we can teach our children. If you can make them believe in Jesus Christ, I’m quite sure they will listen.

Thank You, Jesus, for Your lessons in fidelity and chastity, and for Your grace that helps preserve our marriage. Keep us strong against the temptation of adultery, as we pray for all marriages to prevail against the evil of divorce. Amen.

Dealing with Conflicts

Matthew 5:20-26
1 Kgs 18: 41-46 / Ps 65: 10-13

Go first and be reconciled with your brother, then come and offer your gift.
(Matthew 5:24)

For the sake of peace, may I be meek,
To yield what is right as Jesus would,
And even offer the other cheek,
And understand, than be understood.

Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:20-26)

Reflection

The Pharisees and scribes projected their so-called righteousness by meticulously following the Mosaic laws in external practice. But Jesus knew they wanted to kill Him because of their extreme jealousy and prejudice. So Jesus pointed out that their pious posturing did not exempt them from the sin of murder, because their hearts were full of anger against Him. He reminded them that their festering hatred made them liable to God’s judgment, just as those who insulted others were liable to their own Sanhedrin as well as to the fires of hell. Then Jesus took this occasion to teach them (and His followers, us included) about the importance of resolving personal conflicts. You cannot establish a loving relationship with the Father unless you are first reconciled with your own brother. And you must establish the same spirit of reconciliation with your enemy as well – if not for the sake of love, at least for the sake of your own peace of mind. Your debts to God may be forgiven, but no debts to men must remain unpaid. “You will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Mt.5:26).

Human conflict is a natural occurrence in life which happens due to our different beliefs, values and concerns. It is more than a mere disagreement – it is a situation in which we perceive a threat to our personal or social well-being. Only in extreme cases –- as in the defilement of the temple by money-changers — did Jesus justify a moment of anger to rectify a wrong.

If not managed carefully, conflicts can damage relationships. But more often, the causes of conflicts are much smaller than the perceived harm, and the wrong responses only manage to “turn molehills into mountains”. Properly addressed, however, as Jesus exemplified in His words and deeds, the resolution of conflicts can lead to spiritual growth, mutual respect, and even the correction of the wrong attitudes of our adversaries.

The best behavior that one must have in the face of conflict is accommodation. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes,” is how a mediator would say it. Setting aside our position in order to understand an opposing opinion is a more constructive strategy in reaching a resolution than taking a more combative stand to gain the upper hand. “Yield to build” sounds like a better motto than “Compete to defeat.” Accommodation, respect, understanding and humility are essential tools in resolving conflicts, but just as important are honesty and courage. Jesus never held His punches when He condemned the Pharisees for their pride and hypocrisy. Dealing from a position of honesty and courage will earn the respect of our adversaries.

Father God, our Lord Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ for they shall be called Your children. Help us to offer first our hand before our thoughts, and seek first to understand before we try to be understood. Amen.

True Love is Obedience

Matthew 5:17-19
1 Kg 18:20-39 / Psa 16

Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:19)

Those who prefer not to obey
God’s laws forfeit heaven’s treasure,
Those who submit will find the way;
Obedience is love’s true measure.

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter, or the smallest part of a letter, will by any means disappear from the Law until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 17-19)

Reflection

Jesus always emphasized the sacredness and validity of Scriptures. “Not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law until all things have taken place.” (Mt.5:18) Obedience to God’s laws and love are the two recurring themes in His teachings, two vital keys that we need to open the gates of heaven. His love has transformed us, but we still need God’s decrees and ordinances in Scripture to guide us to His kingdom. Together with the strength, perseverance and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, we strive to follow and learn God’s Word assiduously, and in the process, earn the gifts of the Spirit in order that we can also teach His Good News to others. It becomes our major preoccupation, our mission, our joy and our life.

The love that our Lord Jesus teaches is most the vital means for our sanctification. It transforms mediocrity into a passionate desire to keep God’s commandments. Love inspires humility and obedience to the law, and makes it easy for us to submit to authority, and be receptive to its teachings. For instance, our love for our Brotherhood makes submission sweet and natural. We know the difference between obedience dictated by fear and obedience dictated by love. We submit to our elders not because we fear them, but because we love them.

Obedience also comes easy because in our Brotherhood we experience our spiritual growth in the truths of the Gospel, and we credit this to the teachers of our community. St. Peter wrote, “Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely with a pure heart.” (1 Pet 1:22)

Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments… He who has received My commandments, and keep them, is the one who loves me…If a man loves me, he will keep my words…He who loves me not keeps not my commandments.” (Jn.14:15-24)

Our greatest model of faith and total obedience in the Old Testament is Abraham. Out of His love, trust and obedience to God, He was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Genesis, chap.22). His love for God was far greater than his own life.

Those who fear the Lord disobey not His words; those who love Him keep His ways. (Sirach 2:15) Thank You, Father God, for Your laws that inspire us to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose Word we trust will lead us to Your kingdom. Amen.