Monday, August 17, 2009

The Process of Perfection

"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Matthew 19:21

A rich man came to Jesus and asked Him what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered him by telling him to keep the commandments. The man pressed him with which commandments he should keep at which our Lord gave him a summary of the Law. Then the man said he had kept all of these commandments since he was young. In response, our Lord gives him the directive that is our text today. He did so to highlight the man's self-righteousness. No one keeps the Law. We are all sinners. We violate the Law continually. This man was deceived. He thought he was completely righteous when he was really lost in his sins.

There are a lot of things about this story that we can draw from for our own lives. The first is what we might think of as an examination of conscience. Using the Law as our guide, are we really living for the Lord as we think we are? The test is to look at some of our most prized possessions. Or, perhaps, to put it another way, it is to look at the thing that is closest to our hearts. If we must forsake that, does it bring grief to our hearts? Are we willing to walk away from Jesus over this one thing? As our Lord says elsewhere, "What will you give in exchange for your soul?"

Jesus gives this man the way of perfection: truly abandon everything and follow Him. This is scary for us to read. We want to pass by it. We hope the Lord will not exact such a commitment from us.

Our Lord calls us all to perfection. He calls us away from the things of this world in order to follow Him. But the thing that we often fail to recognize is that we must get there by degrees. St. Paul wrote that even if he gave everything away and his own body to be burned, but he did not have love it would be worthless (see 1 Co. 13). So we see that the perfection that our Lord calls for is not merely the abandonment of all worldly goods. Rather, He wants our hearts. "Where your treasure is, that is where your heart is also," (Mt. 6:21). The giving away of our things, the helping of the poor, the detachment from things of this world are not ends in themselves, but have their end in a deeper love for God. But again, we must get there by degrees.

First, we must ask ourselves if we keep the Law. In other words, are we living by God's word? Are we striving to become more like Him? We start here. We see that we have failed to keep God's commandments and we are sinners. We humble ourselves and ask for His forgiveness. We obey Him by coming to the Church to be nourished by Word and Sacrament. We develop a life of prayer. We learn to become a servant and give to those in need. All of these things are steps in the journey to becoming like Christ. We can't get there over night. We must take it one step at a time. No one is ready to go and give away everything without going through this process first. Only after we have come to a certain place will we find ourselves in this place of perfection. Most of us will never get there in this life, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't still have it before us as our goal.

Where are you in this journey? Maybe you haven't even begun yet. It's not too late. Today is the day to start. Begin where you are and allow Jesus to take you further. To follow Him in faith is the way that leads to eternal life. God does want us to strive for perfection. But we must take it one step at a time.

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