be perfect, be merciful
(fr Cyprian, on Mt 5:43-48)
There is something just before this section in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount which the Church for some reason left out, (perhaps for the sake of brevity). Jesus said, ‘You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth” (which is actually quoting Ex 21:24 and Lev 24:19) but I say to you…’ That’s called the law of retaliation. We might think that sounds harsh—“an eye for an eye”—, but even that is actually an advance over other primitive societies, an advance in the evolution of the moral conscience. Before that there was reprisal and retribution, revenge and vengeance, even sanctioned in the Bible! “An eye for an eye” is at least proportional; it limits reprisal to reciprocity, hence, an eye for an eye and no more! Vengeance is mine, says the Lord (Deut 32:35). But in later Jewish thought there is also what is called the Silver Rule, as opposed to the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them to unto you,” intimated in the Book of Tobit and found in the teachings of Hillel. And then of course comes the Golden Rule (Mt 7:12), which asks for a little more, asks for the same thing in a positive light: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ which implies positive action, taking the initiative to create an atmosphere of good will. And then the next step is this teaching: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ This is nothing less than moral heroism; this is the height of sanctity; this is perfection.
This is also of course language we use nowadays too when speaking about war, and one of the debates about nuclear weapons and “proportional response”: in a nuclear age can there be such a thing as a proportional response? But again Jesus takes one more step and one can easily see in it a case to be made for absolute pacifism. ‘But I say to you…’ The next move is no retribution at all, ceding your lawful rights for the sake of charity, for the sake of mercy. The folks that work in what’s called restorative justice are a lot closer to the gospel injunctions than anything else, meaning that the proper response to a crime or to an injustice is to heal the relationship; the proper response is always reconciliation. ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’
So Jesus is bringing the Law to its fulfillment, as he has said earlier in the same sermon: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.’ The Greek word Matthew uses is teleios–perfect, a word rarely used in the New Testament: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ It’s related to the Greek word telos––one of my favorite concepts––the end, the ultimate goal: to be perfect is to have reached the consummated goal of life. You could say Jesus is bringing the Law to its telos–to its end, its consummated goal and its fulfillment. And what does it mean to be perfect? What’s the fulfillment? There are so many variations on this saying, and perhaps they all fall together in Jesus. In Deuteronomy it means to be blameless (tamin)—be blameless; in Leviticus it’s qedosim–‘be holy as I am holy.’ Matthew uses teleios, usually translated “perfect,” but for the Greek to be perfect meant being conformed to the divine ideal. And that’s where the Gospel of Luke comes in handy and ties it back to this teaching about our enemies: in Luke’s version of this story (6:36) Jesus says, ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ That’s what it means to be perfect––it means to be merciful! That is what conforms to the divine ideal! That’s what it means to be like God ‘who rains on the just and the unjust… Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’ We might think our telos, our ultimate goal, is union with God, or a stilled mind, or saying our mantra for a half an hour without interruption. But Jesus tells us that our ultimate goal is to be merciful as God is merciful. That is the proof of our perfection. The fulfillment of the law is mercy.
The Jewish Scriptures still allow praying for the defeat of our enemy, but we Christians are not allowed to do that anymore. This of course was the big debate, once we started praying the psalms in English, of whether or not we could use the cursing psalms. Unless you were going to go through and mark out every subtlety of when we were really cursing the demons or the logismoi (evil thoughts) instead of our neighbors, many scripture scholars and liturgists (including Fr. Bede and Fr. Deiss) said very clearly, “These are not Christian prayers!” We have to make a real selective use of the things that we say publicly. Jesus is pretty clear about a few things, and one of them is to pray for your enemy, to love your enemy, to bless and do not curse them! Imagine Jesus saying this to his contemporary co-religionists, who were no doubt familiar with calling down scriptural curses on their enemies, on Rome or on their neighbor who had stolen their chicken. Love your enemy, be like God, be perfect, be merciful. To be perfect like God is to be merciful like God. Mercy is perfection. Be like God. Be perfect. Be merciful. No exceptions. There is no place in the Gospel for revenge, reprisal, retaliation––only mercy, only restoration, only reconciliation.
Jurgen Moltmann wrote that Jesus revealed a new justice, one that “breaks the Infernal circle of hatred and vengeance, and creates from both the victims and the executioners a new human race endowed with a new humanity.” That’s what we are called to do and to be in this violent world: the ones who finally break the infernal circle of hatred and vengeance, and that applies to our petty little squabbles as well as in grand gestures. Isn’t that why Saint Benedict urges us to put others’ good before ours? We are the ones who are the first of this new human race endowed with a new humanity. And so, the reading from the Book of Deuteronomy tells us today that we must observe these statutes and decrees with all our heart and all our soul (Deut 25:16-19). We are to be a people peculiarly God’s own. The Book of Deuteronomy is applying this to the strictures and codes of the Law, but when we Christians hear it, we hear this admonition on the lips of Jesus: “You must observe these statutes and decrees with all our heart and all your soul––Be perfect––Be merciful! No exceptions!”
Saint Benedict must have thought this was a pretty important teaching for monks. This is from Chapter 4 of the Rule:
Live by God’s commandments every day… harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do not love quarreling; shun arrogance. Respect the elders and love the young. Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with them before the sun goes down. And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy. (RB 4:63-74)