There used to be a debate in Catholicism about how late to Mass one could be and still fulfill one’s Sunday obligation. Some said that one could be as late as the singing of the Gloria; others said that one could be as late as the Gospel reading. Today, the consensus seems to be that the Sunday obligation is fulfilled by leaving Mass early in order to make up for having arrived late.
My perspective on this question is that, if one feels that one’s prayers aren’t being answered, it might be the case that an incomplete answer to prayer is the most one can expect from incomplete participation in Sunday worship.
During Jesus’ lifetime, there were similar debates about the requirements for righteous behavior. Today’s Gospel reading illustrates the outlines of one of those debates.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “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, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Mt 5:43-45 NABRE)
The debate that gave rise to Jesus’ teaching was the question as to whether the Ten Commandments constituted a maximum standard of behavior or a minimum standard of behavior. In other words, does keeping the commandments constitute all that one must do or the least that one must do?
The Ten Commandments prohibit idolatry, irresponsibility, murder, dishonesty, theft, adultery, and jealousy. Avoiding worship of idols is a good choice, but mere avoidance of idolatry and superstition doesn’t constitute having faith in the One, True God. Avoiding murder is always a good thing to do, but not killing people doesn’t quite measure up to good citizenship. Avoiding adultery, dishonesty, and greed are always the right choices, but simple avoidance of vice doesn’t equate to virtue.
Some people say that it is enough in life for a person to avoid doing evil; others say that, in addition to avoiding evil, one must actively do good in order to be a good person. Jesus held the latter opinion.
According to Jesus, it is insufficient merely to avoid escalating a conflict. He said, “offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” (Mt. 5:39 NABRE) This should not be construed to mean that Jesus was encouraging his followers to tolerate evil; it meant just the opposite. Jesus was instructing his disciples to be so intolerant of evil that they were not to tolerate it even in their own behavior.
Jesus said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:44 NABRE) This is not instruction to behave with cowardice; it means just the opposite. Jesus instructed his disciples to be brave enough to avoid pettiness, vindictiveness, and retaliation.
The minimum standard of behavior in the life of faith is quite minimal. No Saint made it to sainthood by being unremarkable. No disciple became faithful to Jesus by merely avoiding mortal sin. For Jesus’ disciples, the minimum standards of faith and morals are beginning points rather than end points.
Even if one restricts one’s moral reasoning to the minimal level of maintaining genial social relationships, the mere avoidance of doing evil is too minimal to suffice for a decent life.
For example, if the most you expect from your family members is that they stop short of murdering you, you’ve left quite a wide margin for creativity in perpetrating domestic violence. If the most you expect from friends and neighbors is that they refrain from stealing everything you own, you’ve allowed them permission for a great deal of mischief. If the most you expect from the general public is that they avoid lying to you constantly, your opinion of human nature might need to be revised upwards. In a similar way, if the most you expect from God is the bare minimum necessary to get through life, you’re lying to yourself; even non-believers expect more than that from God.
If you are unwilling to settle for no more than the minimum standard of behavior from others, you are obliged not to settle for the minimum standard of behavior from yourself. Specifically, doing the bare minimum in order to avoid condemnation doesn’t even begin to be enough to fulfill God’s will.
Everyone wants to get a good deal in business transactions. Paying the lowest possible price for a car, a home, or an appliance is an enviable accomplishment. Applying the discount standards of business transactions to relationships, however, is always destructive. Would you want to be in a marriage where the most you could expect from your partner is the least possible degree of affection and devotion? Would you want to be in a family which showed you the minimum possible attention and care? Would you want to live in a society that provided you with the minimum possible amount of legal protection? Would you want the least that God can give? Why, then, would you do no more than meet the lowest possible standards of faith and morals in your own behavior?
Jesus said that the commandments are the starting point for the journey that leads to God. Vacation travel makes a good simile for the life of faith: those who go no farther than the departure gate will never reach their intended destination.