The gospel reading today ends with Jesus summing up his great Sermon on the Mount by saying, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We can easily misunderstand what this passage means and leave feeling like Jesus is placing moral demands on us that simply are not possible.
I’ve heard many people compare the moral law to playing the piano. This analogy usually goes something like: the more you follow the moral law the more you internalize it, make it a habit, and then the more free you are to follow it. Much like playing the piano. Someone who has never practiced playing the piano does not have the freedom to actually play it, but the person who has put in the effort to learn and practice gains that freedom.
What this analogy gets correct is that the moral law is not a set of arbitrary rules imposed on us but rather something that offers us greater freedom. However, what this analogy gets wrong truly poisons a Christian understanding of morality.
Who is not just the primary actor, but the sole actor, in the example of the person playing the piano? Obviously it’s the person who chooses to practice or not practice. It is purely by that person’s effort that they make themselves free to play the piano. If you apply this to the moral law then you cut God out entirely. See, the moral law given to us by God isn’t simply an example to follow, a bar we must work to reach. It’s the promise of transformation. The Catechism says:
“The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it” (CCC 1966).
But grace doesn’t just give us the strength to live out the moral law; it actually changes our desires so that we want to. The Catechism again says, “[The Law of the Gospel] does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart…” (CCC 1968). The heart, the Church teaches, is the very center of us where we make decisions. This gives new light to God’s message to us through the prophet Ezekiel:
“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
“I will make you follow my statutes…” God didn’t just show us the behaviors that will lead to our freedom and happiness in the Ten Commandments; He didn’t just give us a living example of follow these commands in Jesus; He didn’t even just give us the strength to live out that example ourselves through grace. God actually changes our very hearts so that we desire to live that way.
The Old Testament reading today from Leviticus says, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” Becoming more and more holy is, as St. Athanasius put it, “becoming by grace what God is by nature.” Grace, the very divine life of God that is given to us freely and dwells within us, makes us divine. Or as the Catechism teaches succinctly, the grace of Baptism “makes us ‘other Christs’” (CCC 2782). Growing in holiness, then, is grace transforming us: making our mind like Christ’s mind, our heart like Christ’s heart, and our desires like Christ’s desires.
What is our role then in growing in holiness, becoming more like Jesus? We must respond to what God is already doing in us and cooperate with Him. And this transformation is a process, often a very long process. The pope teaches:
“Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once….Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively” (Gaudete et Exsultate 50).
In times where this process is especially difficult we must not rely on our own strength but rather ask for more grace, receive the Sacraments, cling to Jesus’ love and mercy, and listen to determine the next small step the Holy Spirit is asking of us in our conscience.
When Jesus says we must “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” he isn’t simply giving us a command; he’s making us a promise that, by his grace and power, he will make us perfect.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.