... to be holy and perfect is to fully embrace God's mercy, not just for ourselves, but for others -- especially the people who have hurt us most deeply.
''Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy" (Lv 19:2). Readings like that one certainly grab our attention. But sometimes the impact can make it hard for us to hear the rest of what's read. "You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people" (Lv 19:17-18).
If that isn't enough, the Lectionary pairs this selection with an equally jarring passage from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus continues his reinterpretation of the law. Instead of Moses' "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," he instructs his disciples to "turn the other cheek," "hand over your cloak as well" as your tunic, and "go for two miles" when you are pressed into service for one.
Finally, he challenges his listeners to go beyond loving their neighbors and hating their enemies. "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father" (Mt 5: 44). Jesus closes the instruction by rephrasing the message we first heard God give to Moses in Leviticus: "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5: 48).
The teachings of Christ all sound wonderful when we are on the receiving end of them. But Jesus intended to place his disciples squarely on the giving side of the equation, the side that creates opportunities for others to receive the mercy of God. And that's where a lot of us get stuck. We all want to be forgiven, but not all of us are willing to forgive. We find it necessary to correct one another, but not many of us undertake the task without incurring sin ourselves. We struggle to forgo, taking revenge when we're convinced that somebody deserves it. And more than a few of us find it difficult to avoid cherishing a grudge when we've been hurt.
And yet, to be holy and perfect is to fully embrace God's mercy, not just for ourselves, but for others -- especially the people who have hurt us most deeply. We may not go through our daily lives thinking about our "enemies." In fact, I'd guess that most of us aren't even sure we have enemies at all. But if we take a deep look into our hearts, we may discover that there are people in our lives from whom we are content to withhold God's mercy. Those are the "enemies" Jesus is talking about; not the people who treat us like enemies, but the people we hold in contempt.
It's hard to let go of anything, and even harder to let go of hurts. But if we really listen to the words of Jesus, we can't sidestep the reality that letting go is what he is asking us to do. If we want to be holy and perfect, we can't get there at anyone else's expense; even if they don't deserve our mercy -- in fact, especially if they don't. Love always costs us something; it cost Jesus everything. But when we give ourselves freely and choose to love even those who have failed to love us, the bond between us is no longer hurt and sin, but love and mercy.
This Lent, Catholics will engage in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving more intently. The hallmarks of this penitential season are all part of the way of perfection Jesus calls us to, the path to growth in holiness as we take up our own crosses and follow him. But if we truly follow him, we will -- in time -- become more like him. We will become holy as the Father is holy and perfect as he is perfect when we set aside receiving the goodness of God and devote ourselves to giving that goodness to everyone else.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.