You Have Heard

He would give someone the shirt off his back. She would go the extra mile for anyone. They are off-the-wall generous. We often hear stories of people who give of themselves way beyond expectation, who help another at personal expense, who spend holidays feeding the hungry. We have so many ways of saying and doing this gospel. Although we all know people who are takers rather than givers, who are stingy and selfish, who are minimalists when it comes to relating to others, our first impulse is to believe in the goodness and generosity of people. Although we don’t always do what Jesus says in this gospel—turn from retaliation, give more than is asked, love beyond what is easy—we do have a sense that what Jesus is asking of us is how we would want the community in which we live to be characterized.

In our treatment of one another—even those who are our enemies—Jesus (as Moses in the first reading) challenges us to go beyond what is expected, beyond what we might think is reasonable or even achievable. We are to go beyond what is human to what is divine: “Be holy” as God is holy (first reading), “be perfect” as God is perfect (gospel). On our own, this is impossible! Only because of God’s love for us expressed in the life of Jesus who teaches us rightly, is this possible. Only when we experience God’s love for us first, is this possible.

Jesus commands us to keep the law in a radically different way. We are duty-bound as “children of [the] heavenly Father” to do more than simply what is mandated. We are to go beyond our natural expectation about keeping laws to embrace the divine excess with which God treats us. Acting toward others as God acts toward us transforms us to “be perfect” as God. This radical living of the law makes divine blessings, grace, and holiness to be real, visible, and at hand for us.

Acting toward others as God acts toward us takes quite a bit of readjusting in our thinking and doing. We must squelch our first impulses to strike out with hand and word. Rather than negatively judging another who doesn’t do as we think he or she should, we must look beyond our narrow perception of things and give the other the benefit of the doubt. However, just as with the early disciples,this readjustment does not happen overnight, nor does it happen automatically.

“Well, that will have to do for now.” How often in daily tasks isn’t this our cry? We have only a little bit of time to clean the house, so what we do will just have to do. We must write a sympathy card and can’t seem to find the right words for a young widow with children, and so we do our best and say that will just have to do.

A “that will just have to do” attitude is hardly the way of living to which this gospel challenges us! On the other hand, the gospel examples seem way out of proportion to our ordinary responses, and to the ordinary demands daily living places upon us. Jesus is not asking us, however, to go looking for folks without coats (although there are plenty in our neighborhoods and cities), or for those who need us to go the extra mile for them (there are plenty who need such help), or to give our money away willy-nilly. What Jesus is asking us to do is look upon every other person, whether friend or foe, family member or stranger, as the beloved of God. Acting in this manner is being holy and perfect as God, and is done not in dramatic ways but in simple everyday gestures of love, respect, and care for others.