A Call to be Perfect

Jijo Kandamkulathy, CMF

Claretian Publications, Macau

Mt 5:38-48


“Lord, I am not worthy,” we repeat this before receiving communion, aware that I know I can’t become bread broken, blood shed without reserve like you for the brethren. I know that I will not have the strength to let myself “be consumed” by them. “I just come to beg your Spirit.” The First Reading begins with the invitation from God to his people to “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Honor your father and mother, observe the Sabbath, do not hate your sister/brother, give up resentment and revenge, and “love” your neighbor as yourself (vv. 3, 17-18). “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Prov 25:21) is the highest point where the morals of the Old Testament come.

Although the Israelites were the chosen race of God, in an archaic society where there was no state power capable of maintaining order, people easily resorted to revenge, retaliation without limits. It is to put a stop to such excesses that the Torah had established “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Ex 21:23-25).

Properly understood, it remains valid even today. If practiced, it guarantees fairness in judgments. Jesus aims to go beyond this strict justice and calls to address the problem in another way (vv. 38-42). “You do not have to resist evil!” Rather than doing violence to a brother/sister, you have to be willing to suffer injustice (Mt 5:39). “If someone strikes you on the right cheek” (v. 41), Jesus demands a radically new behavior, “you offer also the other cheek.” The only way to break the cycle of evil, offense-violence, is to forgive.

In Israel, for the poor, a tunic served as a blanket for the night. It is for this the Torah stated that it could not be seized (Ex 22:25-26). Jesus offers an extreme case of injustice: a disciple is deprived of the tunic. Clearly, all the other goods have already been removed. What must be done? Jesus says, be willing to give not just the tunic but also the cloak, the last garment that remains. He is willing to stay naked, like his Master on the cross.

It often happened that the rich and the powerful bullied the poor peasants and forced them to act as guides or to carry loads. We have an example in the passion narrative: Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus (Mt 27:31). “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go two.” It is not a rule of wisdom. It does not suggest a strategy to convert the aggressor. He asks the disciple to “Give when asked and do not turn your back on anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Do not pretend not to understand, do not make excuses, do not invent non-existent difficulty, do not try to unload the problem on others. If you can do something, just do it.

In the last example Jesus refers to a twofold commandment: “Love your neighbor but hate your enemy” (vv. 43-48). It is the pinnacle of Christian ethics. It is the requirement of the gratuitous and unconditional love that does not expect any return and that, like God’s, reaches even those who do evil.

The availability to give everything, not keeping anything for oneself, to put ourselves totally at the service of people—including the enemy—puts us in the footsteps of Christ and leads to the perfection of the Father who gives his all and does not exclude anyone from his love.

(Indebted to Fr. Armellini SCJ for the textual analysis. Image: RODNAE Productions@pexels.com)