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Perfect or Perfectionism?
Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Opening Prayer: Lord, thank you for these moments to reflect on your words in Scripture. Please enlighten my mind to understand more deeply what you mean by “be perfect.”
- Be Perfect?: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” seems like a tall order. Yes, we’re always trying to be better—we are reading reflections like these to help us on the pathway to holiness, right? But only Jesus and Mary have ever been perfect. The rest of us will never do everything perfectly. Even St. Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the church on prayer, said she got distracted at least once every rosary. So when we hear Jesus tell us to “be perfect,” it can seem like he’s setting us up for disappointment and failure. He wouldn’t do that, so what did he mean?
- Perfectionism?: In biblical translations, our English word “perfect” passes through the Latin word “perfectum,” which could roughly translate to “made all the way through.” But “teleios,” the word in the original Gospel, is closer to “complete” or “reaching a finish line.” Jesus didn’t ask us to become perfect. He asked us to become perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. In our search for holiness, trying to become better, or even trying to become the best version of ourselves, is limited by our personal resources. We often commit the sin of pride when we define holiness by the success we perceive in our growth in virtue. We can end up with scruples or a type of “perfectionism” when the perfect is the standard we have set up for ourselves. Furthermore, we can transfer our rules to the behavior of others and then criticize them for failing when they don’t meet our standards. Jesus didn’t ask us to be perfect like the Pharisees, whose self-righteousness made them no holier. We are God’s children and should strive to become like our Father. We reach our finish line when we fall into his embrace. We will be complete only once we are with him.
- Joy in Being Perfect: Perfection isn’t a set of rules or standards. Perfection isn’t even getting everything right. Perfection, completion, is when you are with the Father. You and I (and St. Teresa of Avila) will struggle and get distracted in our prayers, but we are talking with God, so we are praying perfectly. Prayer is being with him and loving him. Being “perfect” means being with him, doing all things with him, and letting him work with our weakness. If we are living, praying, working, and loving alongside God, then he will finish everything we start. And everything we do will then be perfect.
Conversing with God: Lord, please help me to see my life as “in progress” and under your guidance. Never let me forget that you are my Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. I am nothing without you.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will offer my strengths and failures to you, knowing that both please you because I do everything for you.
For Further Reflection: 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
Father Simon Cleary, LC, is the chaplain at Mano Amiga Academy in the Philippines. The school provides underprivileged children programs that promote values formation, skills and health development, and other services tailored to the needs of the community. Visit www.manoamigaph.org to learn more.