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7th Sunday OT, Year A

I returned from my vacation in Texas on Friday, driving eleven hours straight from Austin back to the Lake. I enjoyed my two weeks in Texas, especially because I was able to speak a little Spanish here and there, even if it was only to order tacos y cerveza! Last Sunday I attended Mass in Spanish in Rockport, on the Gulf Coast north of Corpus Christi. Texas is big. It is so rooted in Spanish and Mexican history, especially with the missions of San Antonio and the south. In the Western part of the state, it’s all cowboys and cattle. In the East it is shrimp and seafood. And all over are signs of the many indigenous Indian tribes. I went to a museum in Austin and saw many examples of Navaho art, especially Navaho weaving.

Transition 1880

The process of weaving a Navaho shawl or rug is long and complicated. Wool is cleaned and combed and spun into yarn, Brilliant colors dye the yard, especially the deep red that is predominant. Then the weaver spends many hours, doing it all by hand without machines or loom. The threads are woven bit by bit. Throughout the whole process there are songs and prayers which traditionally accompany the artists at their work. In creating a shawl, the artist praises the one Creator of all things. As a final honor to God, the weaving incorporates one single error. One little spot in the weaving is deliberately made, usually along the outer edge of the shawl or carpet, nothing too big, but very clearly out of place with the rest of the design. This tradition teaches us that all human efforts are flawed and imperfect. Out of respect for the Creator who is the only perfect one, the beautiful and otherwise perfectly woven blanket must have a visible mistake.

The Hebrew people also have a tradition that teaches about the perfection of God and the imperfection of mankind. The Torah, or first five books of the Bible, are compiled into one long scroll. An artist writes out the letters and the words of the Scriptures by hand. Even to this day, when the Scripture is proclaimed in the synagogue on Saturday, a hand-written scroll of the Torah is used.

The tradition is as Psalm nineteen says “The Law of the Lord is perfect!” Therefore, when the scroll of the Torah is complete, the rabbi checks it for errors. If there is any single error in the 304,805 letters, then the scroll cannot be used for prayer. God’s word is perfect and everything we do for God must be perfect or it is not worthy. The first reading tells us that we must be Holy as our God is Holy. Since holiness is what describes God, and God is without beginning or end, he is all-powerful, and he never changes, then it just seems impossible for human beings to be holy. We are born and we die, we are weak and fallible, we are unfaithful and untrustworthy.

Today we hear Jesus telling us that we too must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. How can Christ demand this of us? Surely this is impossible?

Once again, we are misled by the translations and the words we use for what Christ said. What is the definition of perfect? What do you think it means?  If we think of the Navaho blanket or the Hebrew scroll, then perfection means an object that has no errors or mistakes. We take perfection to mean the same thing as not making an error on a math or history test. Perfection in this case is entirely a moral question, what we do or don’t do. And yes, it seems that Jesus is talking about how we act toward others.

But the perfection that Jesus was talking about wasn’t merely doing the right thing or refraining from sin. The word in Greek in the Gospel of Matthew is “teleios”.  Another translation could be mature or ripe, as in a ripe avocado ready for guacamole.  “Teleios” means completed or perfected, the state of an object when the artist is finished and needs to do nothing more. Something is perfect when it reaches its full potential, it becomes perfected or fully made into what it was meant to be.

I think that Jesus is trying to tell us to live in such a way that we become the persons God intended us to be. Perfection is much more than not sinning. It means reaching our full potential and not letting the imperfections and sins of other deter us from being holy.

Jesus himself must have thought about this a lot. In the Gospel of Luke, he teaches the disciples the same lesson. Although in the Gospel of Luke Jesus instead tells his followers to be merciful as our heavenly father is merciful.

Being perfect and being merciful then must go hand in hand. Being perfect and merciful means that we never stop trying to be the best person who can be. And the true test of our perfection is whether or not we treat those who have harmed us with love and mercy. The way of the world is revenge, hatred, and anger. If someone harms us or takes something from us, we must hurt them in return or take back what was ours. Jesus says, if you are perfect, then what other people do to you doesn’t matter at all. This is how God acts, God loves the just and the unjust.

That’s hard to hear, isn’t it?  Even the Bible seems to say that God rewards the good and punishes the sinner. Should we act that way to? Jesus takes the predominant understanding of what it means to be God and turns it upside down. God loves the sinner. God forgives the prodigal son. God welcomes the stranger. God protects the weak and the lowly. This is the central teaching of the whole Sermon on the Mount:  the meek shall inherit the Land. Well, that sounds crazy! Doesn’t Jesus know that the land belongs to the powerful and the wealthy, the healthy and the ones with influence?

Well, Jesus doesn’t think so at all. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus re-interprets the Scriptures and gives a radical new vision of what it means to be Holy. And he not only teaches us, but he shows us by his own example of love and mercy. And manifests God’s loving forgiveness to us and asks us to treat everyone in the same manner.