Wednesday, October 2, 2013

People I Should Pray for (but Don't) — On Becoming Perfect

This is a lecture that I gave to the Knights of Columbus last night at St. Bernard Church in Tulsa.

Brother Knights,
In the Book of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us one of his most difficult teachings. It was on the Mount of Beatitudes that Jesus sat among his disciples and told them:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

There is probably nothing that causes me more fear in the Bible than Jesus telling me I must be perfect. Especially when it seems he has spent much of my life showing me that I am not perfect, giving me more insight than I wanted into my imperfections and sins. And, especially, when there was once a time in my life when I could ignore my flaws or excuse them and be content.

But, the theme of becoming perfect in the eyes of God runs through both the Old Testament and the New. It militates against the comfortable life which, when I was younger, would have found me drawing another beer from the tap, turning up the music and thinking I had achieved perfection in my own material happiness. And, it presses me where I am now, in a different season, when I turn on the grill, pour a glass of wine, sit with my wife and watch my children play and think that this too must be perfection or at least the material approximation of it.  Neither, in its season, is intrinsically a bad thing. But, have I, have we, having largely met the financial challenges of life, and moved away from the material problems of the world into our middle and upper middle class subdivisions, become like the Israelites who sought God and his perfection only when they were materially poor?

Are we like the Jews of the Old Testament whom Isaiah warns in prophecy about the coming invasion of Jerusalem:

In that day the Lord God of hosts
called for weeping and mourning,
for baldness and wearing sackcloth;
and behold, joy and gladness,
killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,
eating flesh and drinking wine.
“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”

Isaiah chastises the Israelites for seeking their perfection in material goods, for being wealthy in the things of this world but poor in their relationship with God. They rely on their own efforts to fortify Jerusalem for a coming invasion, but will ultimately fail and be driven into exile because they forgot the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because they forgot the spiritual perfection to which they were called.

One can imagine those Jews of old, trusting in themselves and material wealth, when they should have placed their trust in the Lord. The Old Testament is a running account of them doing so and the consequences they endured. That was then, right? Unless we look at those Christians of today who trust in themselves for their perfection, or worse, refuse to seek it at all; who absorb themselves in their technology and relative luxury amidst the world’s seven billion people, but never find time to pray; those Christians who should be working out their salvation, their perfection, in fear and trembling. And, of course, our lives are a running account of the consequences we have endured.

Christ’s telling us to be perfect is very real and demanding. And, a response that foolishly says “I’m good enough” or in false humility says “Jesus knows I could never reach that, so I will not try” will not lead you to the narrow path nor grant you passage through the needle’s eye. Because, following the path of perfection is what separates the children of God from the children of the world. Within the faith, it separates the old men from the young men.

And, I think, that Jesus is generous to us in our middle age and later life. Had we sought perfection in our younger years we may have heard something similar to this:

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  And he said to him, “…If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:16-30).

None of us did that when we were young, and we are unlikely to be so bold now in later years. Our possessions are much more a part of us during this time. Were we to ask Jesus the way of perfection now, I think Jesus would look at us and wonder why we hadn't listened when we were younger; why, after all these years, we are not perfect. And, pitying our persistent imperfection, I think he would tell us to use our possessions to raise holy families and to see the poor as an extension of those dependent on our wealth; to give freely to those in need and to the Church and not to let the things of this world have our hearts.  And be prepared, when the time comes, to indifferently release the last of it as we go to the grave; to realize that we are but stewards and that we are to give it all away in our hearts right away and to give it away physically over time.

But, then, we would have to tend to perfecting our hearts. And this, in middle and later years is probably an even greater challenge than the one laid before the rich young man. And we can’t afford to beg Christ’s indulgence for not having met the bar. We must learn to truly love and pray for enemies.

I say this is a bigger challenge at our age because we have had years to both cross others and be crossed by them, to alienate and be alienated from family and friends; to have bred a contempt for our neighbor and a withering disrespect for those who might oppose us; to even have directed our anger to men and women in Washington and Hollywood and to have held our leaders in contempt. We have not loved these people. We have not been perfect.

I think, therefore, that at this stage in life, while we slowly give away all of our material wealth, we should quickly give away our hearts. Jesus told us to achieve perfection by loving and praying for our enemies. And, this is much more difficult than it seems.

Some of you may in your mind be thinking of the times you have prayed for your enemies, but I wonder if, like me, you have not prayed for them, but rather at them. To take the example of a public figure, do your prayers sound like this:

"Lord, I ask you this day to stop the evil that President Obama seeks to do. Send St. Michael and your angels to Washington to defend us against the evil men and women who would use their power against us and your Holy Church. Wake up those who do not see this evil and cause them to vote for conservative Republicans in the next election who will go to Washington and do what they promised to do. Amen."

Not too bad, I suppose. It does get the petitioning part of prayer down. But, really, this is prayer used as a spiritual grenade launcher. We are praying at the president, not for him.

What if, instead, we prayed this:

"Lord, bless President Obama and keep him this day from all harm and evil. Give him a day in which he has time to spend with his wife and daughters. Make him a better husband and father. Give him a good day filled with good things. Grant to him genuine happiness. May he, through your guidance, become a great president who will be remembered for having accomplished great things. And, after he leaves office, give him a long, happy life filled with successful children, numerous grandchildren and good health. And, when it is his time, bring him to the joys of eternal life with you. Amen."

I think you’ll find this more challenging than it sounds. Especially the closer in life the person is to you. I had to spiritually steel myself at work today to pray for supervisors I’d had a significant disagreement with and which had generated some bitterness. But, I generally prayed the same prayer. I suspect, even if the disagreement never resolves in my favor, it will make them better people. I know I felt better when I was done and that by the effort it involved it took me one step closer to perfection.

In the first letter of Peter, the first pope tells us that Christians should honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God and honor the king. In genuinely praying for our enemies and their personal well-being, we love them. And, we walk the path of perfection that Christ calls us to. 

Most of us will die quietly in bed, either at home or in a hospital, well provided for. The challenges of our life will mostly be spiritual rather than material. What a great moment it will be for us if our last words are forgiving those who have trespassed against us, asking God that he do good to them while they are here, and begging that we will have the joy of their company in heaven. Then, we will have belatedly, but gladly, given up everything to be with Christ.


  1. O Jesus! I remember Your Wounds which penetrated to the very marrow of Your Bones and to the depth of Your Being. Draw me away from sin and hide me in Your Wounds. Amen.

  2. I loved your prayer for the president asking God to watch over him and help him to be a great president. I am been so tired of hearing all the ugly and derogatory comments. No matter how we feel, our president deserves our respect. It is sad that today our young people are being taught that ridicule and bad manners are cool. And I blame the parents who are setting the worst example. The media is terrible but kids need parents who set a good example.