In His Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” In another version, Luke’s Gospel, in what is sometimes called The Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says: “Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.” Is it any wonder that Pope Francis chose his papal motto, miserando atque eligendo, and, in his brief pontificate, declared A Year of Mercy? As a Jesuit, formed to think critically and study data from various angles, he would logically conclude that Jesus wants us to understand that, somehow, perfection and mercy are closely related.
We are told that his Latin motto is difficult to translate into English but essentially means that God’s nature to show mercy, or to “mercify” us, is how we are chosen to be one with Him, i.e., to pursue divine perfection. Granted, no one on earth can attain perfection; but our trust is that if we pursue it here with divine assistance we can attain it in the life beyond. Francis shares the story of being seventeen years old when, on the Feast of Saint Matthew, he had an experience in which he was touched by an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy. Later he read a sermon by Saint Basil that offered commentary on Jesus’ calling of Matthew, a tax collector and therefore notorious sinner, which referred to Christ’s merciful gaze of love that targeted the future apostle and evangelist.
I suspect that, like many seventeen year olds, the future pope had high expectations for himself at that stage of living and was disappointment for being less than perfect. I wonder how many of us are stuck in a similar state of spiritual development though we are much older. In our society, we grow up with goals of being successful, beginning with our first actions: smiling, rolling over, crawling, walking, talking, etc., and they are emphasized in our first days of school where we get rewarded for sitting still, being quiet, raising our hand, and being helpful in structured settings conducted by teachers, or scoring baskets or touchdowns, being funny or making friends, achieving power or leadership in less structured settings conducted by peers; at the same time, we get punished for not performing or achieving well in those same settings. Whether we define personal success as having good test scores and a high GPA, making a particular team or being in a certain social group, or shining in extra-curricular feats, each of us rejoices in triumphs and suffers set-backs along the way. Our tendency is to compare ourselves with others. As we mature we, hopefully, become comfortable in our own skin, accepting our strengths and liabilities, and look to the future with optimism. Later, our goals shift from being successful in earthly matters to something far more important: being true to ourselves and the God who created us. To attain the higher goal, I think we have to welcome God’s mercy.
Many young people give up on themselves, even give up on life, because they don’t like how they stack up in comparison to others or to their own goals; their lack of reaching the level of perfection they desire causes stress, anxiety, depression, and other feelings and thoughts that lead them to actions they don’t like. Saint Paul speaks for most of us when he writes about doing the very things he despises. During the Sermon on the Mount, people looked up to see Jesus at His place above them—we look up to a height of perfection that we simply can never achieve while on earth; though we need that viewpoint, we also need to see it from another angle. In the sermon on the plain, Jesus gets down on our level and helps us understand that those early childhood and adolescent goals of success and unattainable perfection are merely preparation for something far more important, something that embraces union with God and His divine mercy. It’s too bad that most seventeen year olds, who approach their physical and mental peak, are nowhere near reaching their emotional or spiritual potential. If they were, they wouldn’t give up; they wouldn’t judge themselves against their successes or lack thereof; they’d better understand their feelings, thoughts, and actions; they’d more likely be comfortable inside their own skin, embracing their strengths, liabilities, and “mercification” process that is working within. They would know that He is calling them and choosing them for something wonderful—not only in this life but the one beyond our imagining where we will finally know perfection. Luke’s Gospel is commonly referred to as The Gospel of Mercy. It is good for us to consider that angle and perspective, too.
If only we could comprehend that our earthly life’s quest for success and perfection is mysteriously enveloped inside God’s ageless quest for us, if only we recognized His loving gaze that beckons us be one with Him, if only we responded as the sinner, Matthew, did, we could better accept the irony of our human condition. We would realize that we attain perfection through our imperfect status and that through His mercifying power we become more patient with ourselves and more compassionate with others who are on the same quest.