Gentle and Judgemental Equals Perfection

You have to see the recently released movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood about Mr. Rogers.  For those who are unaware, Fred Rogers had a very influential television show for children from 1968 to 2001, demonstrating remarkable kindness and gentleness, and teaching us the specialness of every person.  The film is inspired by the true story of a cynical journalist who felt wary about himself and unworthy of people’s trust.  He then met Mr. Rogers, who chose to like and love him, seeing past the facade that he was presenting, and giving him what he needed.

[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]

 

A Catholic film critic said this film “offers… a powerful paradigm of life as perhaps we feel it ought to be”.  The critic makes this statement because in the film the journalist’s family is so dysfunctional, and has so much pain, hurt, and lack of forgiveness.  In essence, the film brings out how, deep inside of us, there’s a child that is broken, that needs gentleness.  When we see Mr. Rogers love this broken man, who is us, we realize: That’s how we should be to others!  And it’s hilarious: the journalist can’t believe anyone can be this good-natured, but Mr. Rogers was actually like that!

I came out of the movie a better person because I wanted to practice more kindness and gentleness, and love my neighbour better.  Most people don’t know that Mr. Rogers was actually a Presbyterian pastor and reflected a part of Jesus’ perfection.

The First Reading and the Gospel are about love of neighbour and perfection.  Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).  There are four ideas on which to reflect regarding this command of Jesus.

1) Being ‘perfect’ means reaching our end goal of being like Christ (Daniel Mueggenborg, Come Follow Me, Year A, 177-178).  God is love, so perfection means loving like God the Father and Christ, which is moral perfection.  Being perfect does not mean achieving great things in life (which is good) or being perfect in appearance or material things, because those things aren’t the goal of life.

2) Being perfect isn’t just about fulfilling the commandments.  Imagine if a couple said, “Our marriage is wonderful!  We don’t steal from each other, lie to each other, or cheat on each other.  And we haven’t even killed each other yet!” (Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri, Gospel of Matthew in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 101).  Keeping the commandments is good, but is the minimum.  Perfection calls us to seek the maximum, the best, not just keep the commandments, but to grow in love!

3) ‘Perfection’ doesn’t mean being nice.  It has more meat to it, including the six teachings Jesus just gave before this command: our love is not to be tainted by unjust anger (5:21-26) or lust (5:27-30); we are to be faithful to our marriage vows until death (5:31-32), as well as to our word (5:33-27); we are not to retaliate (5:38-42), and are to love our enemies (5:43-47).

4) Jesus’ command to perfection relates to a command in the First Reading, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2).  Perfection and holiness go together (Cf. Lumen Gentium, 11,3; 40).  To be holy in the Biblical sense means to be given to God, separated from ordinary use.  Holy people are separate, not in a strange, aloof way, but focused on God.  And this isn’t just priests and sisters, etc.  All of us, by our Baptism, are separated from sin.  In addition, Pope Benedict also teaches that holiness means we exist for other people, to heal and serve them (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, 86).

There are two ways to grow in perfection on which we want to focus, based on the readings.  The first is how we respond to people who mistreat us, the second is correcting other people.

1) Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Mt 5:38).  This is the Old Testament command to make sure that no one exacted a punishment greater than the crime: If someone hurt us, the most we could ask for would be equal punishment.  But Jesus then says, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

All Scripture scholars assert that these words are about non-retaliation (See Curtis & Sri, 100; Mueggenborg, 175; Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 16; Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew in Sacra Pagina, 88; Germain Grisez, Living a Christian Life, 271, 892), not about being a doormat.  How do we know that?  Firstly, look at the context: Jesus mentions small scale, personal situations.  Sometimes people offend our pride or are unreasonable in small matters, so, for the sake of peace, we can let it slide.  A mature, confident person who gets physically pushed while waiting in line may decide it’s not worth confronting someone acting foolishly.  Secondly, we know Jesus isn’t asking us to be doormats when we read the rest of Scripture!  God teaches in the First Reading, “You shall love your neighbour” how? “as yourself” (Lev 19:18).  So, if ever people are aggressive to the point that it’s a moral threat, we must defend ourselves (Leroy Huizenga, Behold the Christ, 160.  See also CCC 2263-65).

Therefore, never retaliate, and sometimes we can let small things pass.  If, however, we’re the kind of people who always let things pass because of shyness, fear, or lack of courage, that’s not true love, but an inability to assert ourselves.  All of us have to work on loving our enemies and praying for them, but we also need to have the courage and composure to confront evil in wise ways.  This leads to our second way to grow in perfection.

2) The First Reading says, “You shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself” (Lev 19:17).  The RSV Bible, typically regarded as the most literal translation into English, says it slightly differently, “You shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him.”  But both translations mean we need to correct people and tell them their sins (Roland Faley, New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 73).

And this brings us to the idea of judging people, something we’ve discussed a number of times.  Is judging wrong?  Yes and no.  We should judge actions.  You can’t say, “Oh, that little boy is bullying that other child.  Well, Jesus said not to judge.”  Of course we judge: bullying is wrong, and we should correct bullies.  But we generally don’t judge the heart because we usually don’t know what’s going on there.

When Jesus teaches, “Judge not, that you not be judged” right after this He adds, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:1,5), so clearly He wants us to correct others, having first corrected ourselves.

The world would be a much better place if we were all like Mr. Rogers, but we can’t stop there.  The world would be perfect if we were like Jesus, meaning, gentle and strong, standing up forcefully against evil.

The reason so many admire Jordan Peterson, a psychologist and arguably the most influential Canadian thinker, is because he has courage to say what’s right even at great personal expense.  He became wildly famous in 2016 when he said that he would not be compelled to use made-up gender-neutral pronouns.  If a student or colleague insists that he call them by zhe, zher, etc., he won’t do it; he said that’s manipulative, and doesn’t recognize anyone’s right to insist that we have to call them by what they want.  (Start video at 41:47.)

Transgender activists and the politically correct attacked him, and the University of Toronto issued him two letters of warning.  But he didn’t back down.  Eventually they backed down.

All people see in Peterson’s courage a part of perfection.  What about us?  Will we stand up for what’s right even when everyone says we’re wrong?  Remember how one of you said that I’m censoring myself?  That’s not good; that’s weakness, that’s cowardice.

St. Thomas More was a husband, father, lawyer, and Lord Chancellor of England in the 1500s.  He was kind, funny, gentle with the weak, close to his family and friends, but also assertive, serious, strong against evil, and different than the rest of his colleagues.  He was beheaded because he wouldn’t say that King Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage were valid.  There was something inside of him that wouldn’t break—that’s his soul, and he truly possessed himself, and no one could take it away.  Most people sell their soul when there’s enough pressure, and then there’s nothing left inside; they’re a shell.

St. Thomas shows that perfection is possible and attractive.  I want to be like him!  He cooperated with Jesus by intense prayer, study, and discipline.  Every time that, with God’s help, we choose what’s morally right, when we’re gentle when it’s difficult to be gentle, or courageous when it’s difficult to be courageous, we become more perfect, like Jesus!

This is our final week before the holy season of Lent.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and, as mentioned, we’re doing our fourth year of 40 Days for Life, covering five days, from Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 to Monday, Mar. 2, 2020.  Last year, praise God, we had 307 people come out, including many men, which is a blessing.  So far, we have 130 signed up this year.  Thank you!  But it’s actually low considering we’re covering five days.

Let’s just review what we’re doing: We’re asking everyone here to take at least one hour to pray silently for an end to abortion.  We have booklets that we use to help us pray.  We don’t confront people; we just publicly pray.  No one will hurt us.  B.C. Women’s Hospital is aware of our presence.  We’re standing on private Catholic property.

There are 11 time slots where no one’s signed up, and 11 slots where there’s only one person signed up.  We shouldn’t let this happen.  No one should be praying and witnessing alone.  We need to come to the side of each other and support our brothers and sisters.

A beautiful thing we can do is ask a friend to pray with us, “I was thinking about going.  Want to come with me?”  We’re always stronger when in a group.  We can go as a family or a group of friends.  We’re going to do this together.

As your priest, I’m personally asking you, for the love of God and for the love of humanity, to join the whole community in doing the right thing.  If we’re pro-life, let’s put it into practice!  It’s not what I want from you, it’s what I want for you.

The world is hungering for more gentleness and courage.  It’s not in the film, but Mr. Rogers’ gentleness led that cynical journalist to pray as he never had before.  Countless people have said that Jordan Peterson’s clarity about how to live and about what’s true saved their lives.  And St. Thomas More teaches us that perfection is possible and attractive.  All these people point to Jesus, Who is perfect and calls us to be perfect.

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