Today, on Good Friday, the day of Christ’s sacrificial act of love on the cross, He offers human beings a model of perfect love. In doing so, He calls them to have the same perfect love. In fact, in His preaching, He proclaims to the people in His day, particularly to the men He called to Himself, that they could only be perfect as such by becoming His disciples. For this reason, He tells them that in this discipleship, they are called to be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect. According to Him, this call to perfection alone will lead them to true happiness as His disciples. At the same time, they can only be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect, by learning such perfection from their Master, Jesus Christ, the perfect image of the Father.
At first, this call to perfection, for the disciples, may have seemed completely unreasonable to them, and to the people of God in the first century, especially to their families and friends. After all, in all four Gospels, they are described by the Evangelists as imperfect human beings, as sinners, who eventually abandon their shepherd, Jesus Christ, during His passion. In fact, in today’s reading for Good Friday from St. John’s Gospel, the Evangelist recalls the sinfulness of the chief apostle, Peter, and the treasurer, Judas Iscariot. According to St. John, they both fail to love Jesus by sinning against Him during His passion.
On the one hand, Peter tells Jesus, multiple times, as the chief apostle, that he would remain faithful to Jesus, even die for Him, but he eventually denies Jesus three times during His passion. In doing so, he denies that he is a friend or disciple of Jesus. In this denial, he sins against the love of Jesus through the passion of fear. Indeed, Peter sins here because, in his human fragility, he is afraid for his life. He is afraid that the persecutors of Jesus will persecute him if he says he is a friend or disciple of Jesus. Consequently, moved by fear, Peter does not have the fortitude to love Jesus publically or openly, before others, during His passion. He denies Him. As such, in the Gospels, the Evangelists rightly describe Peter as a man who suffers from fear, especially during the passion of Jesus, as recounted in St. John’s Gospel today. At the same time, as bad as Peter’s denial of Jesus is, considering he was called by Jesus to be the chief apostle, the leader of the other apostles, Peter will learn from his failure. If he is the leader, the chief apostle, who can fall but can also learn from falling, to be perfect just as His Heavenly Father is perfect, then all the apostles can do the same. This is a message of hope that he offers to them, really to everyone. In this sense, as a sinner, as a sinful leader, he becomes a model of redemption for the apostles, for all Christians, by learning from his fall that he can rise up again not just by repenting, but by saying yes to his call to perfection in this life.
On the other hand, Judas, in his betrayal of Jesus during the passion, sins against Him through malice because of greed. Indeed, he fully intends to betray Jesus for the right price by having Him arrested by the chief priests and Pharisees. As a result, after telling them about his proposal for such a betrayal, and the payment he would require from them, they pay him thirty pieces of silver. For this reason, in St. John’s Gospel today, the Evangelist describes Judas leading armed guards and soldiers from the chief priests and Pharisees to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He fully plans and premeditates this act of betrayal because of his greed. The Evangelists recall that Judas, in his greed, would steal donations from the collection bag that Jesus and the disciples would receive from people. As treasurer of the group, this was easy for him to do. After all, he held the money bag and would help himself to the proceeds. Consequently, this greed leads Judas to sin maliciously against the love of Jesus by a planned act of betrayal. The problem is that after Judas repents for sinning against Jesus, he does not learn. He decides that he has no desire or will to rise up, as Peter did, after his fall. On the contrary, he, once again, says no to the call to perfection, but this time by the act of suicide.
In the teaching of St. Thomas, grace is said to perfect the nature of man. In the case of Peter, after falling, he opened his heart to be perfected as man by the grace of God by saying yes to his call to be perfect, just as the Heavenly Father is perfect. This is the petrine model of discipleship, meaning a disciple can fall, but he can also rise to perfection, just as Peter did. Judas, on the other hand, did not open himself to God’s grace to be perfected as man. He decided to remain in sin after falling in sin. In doing so, he became a model not for the disciples of Jesus, but for sinners, for sinners who do not desire perfection.
After Peter rises to the call to be perfect by the grace of God, he opens his heart to learn from Jesus, the perfect image of the Father, by contemplating His life, His preaching, and His virtue, especially during His passion. In doing so, he develops a true understanding of Jesus’ call to perfection. In particular, he begins to understand that he can only fulfill this calling by maturing as a disciple through the grace of God. In this understanding, Jesus’ call to be perfect really means to become perfect, to mature to perfection as a disciple. In this sense, becoming perfect in discipleship does not mean reaching full or final perfection in this life as a disciple, but maturing to final perfection in Heaven. Only in Heaven does the disciple become fully perfected. In this life, his perfection involves saying yes to his perfectibility as a disciple that he may someday be fully perfected after the perfect image of the Father, Jesus Christ. In fact, just as Jesus matured as man to perfect adulthood, as the Gospels recount, the disciples are called to do the same. For this reason, in His sayings, parables, and stories, Jesus regularly uses images or truths from nature, agriculture, commerce and family life to teach His disciples that they are called to mature to perfection, not in a single moment or in a single day, but gradually throughout their life in preparation for Heaven. In the petrine model of discipleship, the model inspired by Jesus, a disciple can certainly fall daily, but he can also rise daily. After all, in the Old Testament, the just or righteous man of God is said to rise seven times daily after falling as many times in a day.
In considering this call to perfection, St. Thomas, in his Treatise on the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, teaches that love is at the heart of Jesus’ message to His disciples about becoming perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. Specifically, according to St. Thomas, spiritual perfection for the disciples involves maturing to perfection in love. The disciples, of course, have Jesus as their perfect model of such love. Jesus Himself says that there is no greater love they can have than to offer their life for their friends. In the first place, He offers His life to the Father in fidelity to His Divine Filial Friendship to the Father. In His agony in the Garden, Jesus says to His Father, “Let this cup pass from me, but not my will. Your will be done.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen teaches that this offering of the life of Jesus begins at His conception as man but culminates at His passion, for Jesus was conceived and born to offer the greatest act of love to the Father by suffering His passion on Good Friday. In doing so, St. Thomas says that Jesus fulfills the Shema perfectly, for He loves God the Father as His First and Greatest love unto death. For the disciples, maturation in this love for God lasts a lifetime. Secondly, for St. Thomas, the perfection of the disciples in love also involves loving their neighbors as themselves. Jesus models this love perfectly for them by suffering His passion and death for their salvation. Indeed, He loves them by the perfect sacrifice as His Father wills. According to St. Thomas, maturation in this love of neighbor for the disciples involves four degrees of perfection. These four degrees of perfection in love refer to them maturing in their love for four groups or classes of people, as recounted in the Gospel teaching of Jesus. Accordingly, the disciples are first called to learn to love their family members, especially their parents, at home. Later, as they mature, they learn to love certain people as friends. Thirdly, they develop a love for people suffering in society, including the poor, the homeless, the widow, the orphan, and the ill. Finally, they mature to the highest degree of the love of neighbor by learning to love their enemies. In St. Thomas’ Treatise, he says that Jesus perfectly fulfills these four degrees of perfection in loving neighbor. As such, for the disciples, saying yes to Jesus’ call to be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect, means not only maturing to perfection in their love for God, but also learning to image Jesus’ love for everyone. On this basis, on Good Friday, the day of perfect love, Jesus offers the perfect and greatest act of love for God and neighbor by His suffering and death on the cross.
In Christ with Blessed Mary,
Friar Mariano D. Veliz, O.P.