“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Today’s readings, which present sermons from both Moses and our Lord, are very challenging, aren’t they?  The law of our land seems so often to be an expression of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – but we hear our Lord, Jesus, tell us that this is not good enough.  He calls us to take no revenge and cherish no grudge against anyone.  We hear Moses exhort his people in the same way in today’s first reading.  Jesus goes on to command “love your enemy” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  Here, we are given one of the most difficult tasks – to love those we see as our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  We probably find it much easier to do physical tasks in the name of Jesus than respond with forgiveness to someone who offends us.  It is easier to take care of the poor nearby or far away than to forgive our wayward son or daughter.  It is less challenging to work at the soup kitchen than it is to love the co-worker who does not do his or her share of work, or the neighbor who is argumentative and irritating.  Of course, caring for the poor and working in a soup kitchen are good and necessary works of charity, but loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us are the hallmarks of a true follower of Jesus.

Jesus tells us in today’s passage that the greatest response to any situation is love.  It is in direct imitation of the way God treats us – his children – in his great mercy.  When we come to realize that our worthiness is not the cause of God’s love for us – and that his love and mercy are pure gift – our response should be one of gratitude, which brings about a transformation in our relationships with others.  Quite simply, it may feel counter-intuitive to be kind to those who are unkind to us, but that is what we are called to do.  Living out the Gospel in a radical way is essential to spreading the Gospel.  Of course, praying for others and treating them lovingly does not mean we have to endure disrespect or abuse from others without recourse.  We should work to set healthy boundaries that shield us from abusive and disrespectful behavior on the part of others toward us. 

But, due to the sinful nature of humanity, we will inevitably find ourselves in situations when we are not being loved.  Recalling for us that God “makes his sun rise on the good and the bad and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” Jesus calls us to a love that is more than just but is a reflection of God’s abundance toward everyone, the good and the bad.

Those of you who saw Victor Hugo’s great musical Le Misérables certainly recall the poignant encounter between Jean Valjean and the local bishop.  The bishop had taken him in after others rejected him because of his criminal background.  He offered him dinner and lodging.  Jean Valjean then snuck out of the bishop’s house after stealing some silver from his dining room.  He was apprehended by the police just as he left the bishop’s house and hauled back there to stand judgment.  As he stands before the bishop, the inevitability of prison faces him.  You will recall, however, that, rather than condemning him, the bishop protests that Jean Valjean had forgotten to take the matching candlesticks.  Unable to comprehend what has just happened, Jean Valjean remains silent as the bishop quietly remarks: “Today I have bought your soul for God.  Use this treasure to become an honest and upright man.”  Jean Valjean wondered to himself where this bishop had learned his compassion and mercy.  His answer was the Gospel.

At the end of today’s Gospel passage, we hear Jesus tell us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus challenges us to follow his example.  Submitting himself to the Father’s will, he stood silently before Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leaders who falsely accused him and quietly went to his death on the cross.  His only cry was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  The cross has become the symbol of our faith and the bar set for us to reach.  We are called to perfection in the sense of striving each day to be all that God has called us to be – to love without limit, to be generous beyond measure, to show mercy to those in need and to forgive everyone who offends us.  As we work at this, with the grace of God, we are transformed, and, in turn, transform the world around us.  You will notice that Jesus never said that doing this would be easy, but clearly, we are called to follow his command as we serve him and work to build up the kingdom of God here on earth and prepare to join God in his heavenly kingdom forever.