Feb 19, 2017: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

but-to-fulfill-it-1

1st Reading – Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

The book of Leviticus focuses mainly on Levi, one of the tribes of Israel, and particularly on its priests and their duties in regard to divine worship. The book is a kind of manual for liturgy intended primarily for priests (Levites), whereas Deuteronomy is intended primarily for the laity.

Today, we hear one of the rules of conduct which are set out in chapter 19: love of neighbor. 

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

This command is the first of a two-part passage that serves as today’s first reading.  Holiness is the quintessential characteristic of God.  It is much broader in scope than mere goodness; it might be best understood as “godness,” or divine majesty.

The meaning of divine holiness is really beyond our grasp, yet we are required to model our lives, both individually and communally, after it.  The laws we find in the traditions of Israel, particularly those referred to as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), are directives that outline for us the way we are to accomplish this.

You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.

In order to be holy as God is holy, we must refrain from nursing hatred in our hearts.  If we see someone doing wrong we are required to rebuke them or we will share their guilt.

Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.

We are forbidden to entertain any form of vengeance.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The well-being of others must be as important to us as our own.

The command to love is quite familiar to most Christians because of its appearance in the gospels; however, merely contrasting this Old Testament commandment with Christ’s interpretation of it risks misunderstanding its original meaning.  It is within the context of the injunction to be holy as God is holy that the contrast of love and hate must be understood.

Everything is holy only as it stands in relationship to God.  The directives from the Holiness Code show us ways of standing in that relationship.  We should not think our own holiness is the consequence of obedience to these laws; rather, holiness is an all-inclusive way of life.  Our conformity to the directives is our way of entering the life of holiness.

It should also be noted that these directives are communal in nature: our likeness to God is determined by the way we relate to others.

 I am the LORD.”

The reading ends with the solemn divine self-proclamation: I am the Lord!  This is the way I want it; this is the way it is to be.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Let no one deceive himself.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,
for it is written:
“God catches the wise in their own ruses,”
and again:
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are vain.”

So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,
Paul or Apollos or Cephas,
or the world or life or death,
or the present or the future:
all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.

Last week we heard Saint Paul tell of the true wisdom of God. This week he again addresses the divisions in the people of God and reminds the Corinthians (and us) who we really belong to.

Brothers and sisters: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

The temple is no longer a material building, but rather the collection of people who gather in God’s name.  Here, Paul declares that the Corinthian community is this temple. Just as the presence of God made the Temple in Jerusalem holy, so it is the presence of the Spirit of God that makes this new temple holy, and the Spirit dwells in all of the members.

Later, in chapter 6 (6:19), the metaphor of the Temple is applied to the body of the individual Christian, because the Spirit dwells in every one of the baptized.  However, it is important to note that the individual application is secondary. The Spirit comes into the community and gives himself to individuals through the community.

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

The community is holy because it belongs to God; this is a fundamental theological reality to which Saint Paul often refers.

Both pagans and Jews regarded desecration of a temple as a heinous crime.

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise.

Become a fool by accepting the foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,

Paul returns to his discussion of wisdom from last week’s reading (1 Corinthians 2:6-10).  The standards the world uses to determine wisdom are frequently diametrically opposed to the standards of God.  Therefore, those who wish to be wise with the wisdom of God will have to choose a path that will be judged foolish by the standards of the world.

for it is written: “He catches the wise in their own ruses,”

A reference to Job 5:13.

“How does God catch the wise in their own craftiness (Job 5:13)? By showing them that while they imagined they can do without God, just then they would have all the more need of Him. They are reduced to such a strait as to appear inferior to fishers and illiterates, whose wisdom they cannot now do without.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D . 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 10,3]

and again: “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”

Psalm 94:11.  Both of these sayings challenge the merit of human insight.  As necessary and valuable as that it may be, it is nothing compared with God’s knowledge.

So let no one boast about human beings,

This echoes what Paul wrote earlier in this letter, in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 (part of our second reading four weeks ago).  The boasting refers to the false pride the Corinthians took in identifying with various religious leaders (Paul, Appollos, Kephas).  In their vain and merely human appraisal of the ministers of the gospel, the Corinthians have shown themselves to be fools, judging by the wisdom of this world. This folly is also at the heart of the conflict that threatens the unity of the Corinthian community, which undermines the holiness of the Temple of God.

for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Kephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you,

No Christian should glory in men, calling himself a disciple of any preacher, to the detriment of the unity of the Church. The ministers of the gospel are for the faithful, not the faithful for them.

and you to Christ, and Christ to God.

The Corinthians are reminded that they do not belong to their heroes. They belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.  It is in this wisdom that they must live.

Gospel – Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“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.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We continue for the fourth straight week with the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus’ re-interpretation of the law, begun last Sunday, continues today.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

This quotes a legal policy called lex talionis (“talion” means “such” or “same”) which regulated revenge and retaliation for damages (Exodus 21:22-25; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). This law of revenge was found as early as the 18th century B.C.E. in the code of the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi.  It was actually a moral advance over the common custom of blood vengeance, which would exact a price that far exceeded the wrong done.  The laws of the Pentateuch limited the injury inflicted by the avenger to an injury proportionate to the damage done by the aggressor (only one eye, not two). By the time of Jesus, the rabbis already felt even this more humane form of justice was too harsh and began the process of commuting the penalty to fines, but the principle of corresponding restitution remained dominant in legal thinking.

But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

The customary principle of self defense is rejected by this saying of Jesus. As in last week’s gospel reading (Matthew 5:17-37), Jesus employs Near East exaggeration to make his point, providing the three examples that follow.

When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.

Striking the right cheek with the back of the hand is considered particularly dishonoring (Lamentations 3:30), because one strikes a subordinate with the back of the hand, but an equal with one’s palm.

If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well.

Having addressed the law of revenge, Jesus now tells the disciples not to meet legal action with legal action, but to yield what is contested and even beyond what is contested. The tunic is a long shirt worn next to the body, and the cloak is a heavier outer garment that protects against the cold and rain. These were normally the only two garments worn by the Palestinian peasant. In Exodus 22:25-26, the creditor who takes the cloak in pledge is directed to return it at sundown so that the debtor may have covering for the night.

Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.

Forced labor or service was a part of the contribution of the subjects of ancient states to the government.  If a soldier of the occupying forces compels them to carry his gear for a mile (as the Romans often did), they should be willing to carry it twice that distance.

Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

The point of these three examples can be summarized here: give to whomever asks.  In fact, give more than is asked.  Disarm them with your willingness to go beyond what is required and you will gain honor in their sight.  This leaves open the possibility of psychological or moral resistance, exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, where the goal is to shame the opponent into a change of heart. However, this presupposes the requisite dispositions of the opponent, which are not always present.

The theme of giving to beggars and borrowers goes beyond the scope of non-resistance to evil to advocate general kindness, forbearance, generosity, and an open attitude toward people.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

The precept of the love of one’s neighbor is quoted from Leviticus 19:18 (today’s first reading); the precept of hating one’s enemy is not found in the Old Testament, nor is it a summary of rabbinical teaching.

However, the “neighbor” of the love commandment was understood to be one’s countryman; it did not extend past national bounds.

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,

The enemy is specified in Matthew as the persecutor, probably a reflection of the experience of the early Church.

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.

Jesus is insisting that the disciples’ love must be patterned after God’s love, which is given unquestioningly to the just and the unjust alike.  In exhibiting this godlike providence they vindicate their title as sons of God.

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

Matthew uses terms that identify two despised classes among the Jews: the Gentiles (i.e., pagans), and the tax collectors.  If they only love those who love them, but harm those who harm them, they are merely fulfilling the admonition “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

By this kind of love the disciples will be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. The Hebrew word for “perfect” (téleios) means complete, undivided, grown to full stature.  God certainly is complete and undivided, the essence of righteousness and splendor.  It is this standard to which the disciples must strive, and this standard is what makes the interpretation of Jesus so radical.

Connections and Themes

Dealing with revenge and hatred.  In the first reading, we’re instructed to “take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.”  In the gospel, Jesus radically re-interprets the law of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”:

He tells us to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, outdo ourselves in generosity, rise above the fray.  He is not suggesting that we allow ourselves to be abused but that we not perpetuate the antagonism out of which mistreatment arose.  He is not advocating passivity, but he is saying we should not retaliate in kind.  Jesus is describing what we today would call “active non-resistance.” This is the attitude taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They believed in the basic goodness of all human beings, even those who wrong us.  They further believed that the victims’ willingness to suffer rather than retaliate would wear down the aggression of the oppressor.  This is precisely what Jesus teaches.  Right the wrongs by overcoming evil with good, not with revenge.  [Dianne Bergant, Preaching the New Lectionary]

This is not to deny that some live in very threatening circumstances, circumstances against which they must protect themselves.  Jesus is not suggesting that we allow ourselves to be abused, but that we not perpetuate the antagonism by retaliating in kind.

Love your neighbor.  We know that our neighbors include people that we don’t particularly like (favoring the title “friend” for those whom we do like), and that we should love and be kind to them anyway.  Jesus takes it further — the neighbors we are to love are people who do not particularly like us.  We are to love those who deliberately exclude us, those who make us feel as though we are not good enough for them, those who resent us for our accomplishments.  We are even to love those who exploit us or do us harm.

Once again, Jesus is not suggesting that we allow ourselves to be abused, but he is saying that we should not retaliate in kind.  The only way we will have peace will be through love of neighbor, and the way to turn enemies into neighbors is through acts of kindness and generosity: turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, outdoing ourselves in generosity.

Yes, Jesus’ interpretation of the Law is more demanding than we might have expected.  But there is ample evidence of the devastating effects of life lived according to the rule of “an eye for an eye.”  Which way will we choose?

Work of the Spirit.  Overwhelming our enemies with acts of kindness is considered foolish and even dangerous by the standards of the world, but Jesus tells us that this kind of love is true wisdom.  Paul understood this, and was convinced that we can overcome the obstacles to this love because we possess the power of the Spirit of God, who dwells within us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s