Leviticus 19: 1-2,17-18
Psalm 103: “The Lord is kind and merciful.”
I Cor. 3: 16-23
Matt. 5: 38-48
“Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Often when we hear the Gospel, certain phrases stand out not just for their eloquence but also for their challenge. The last line from today’s Gospel is such a phrase. “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is quite a challenge for us! Then looking back to our first reading, there is an echo with the phrase there, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
Be Perfect…. Be Holy….
Just what might these two phrases mean for us? How can we understand them? This is not as difficult as it might seem because in each case the admonition is followed by a brief explanation. In the first reading, we see the plan for personal holiness: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart… Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against [anyone]… Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here Israel is called to be holy and the path to holiness is love for our neighbours. And the reason for such love of others is because God the Lord loved the Israelites first and established his covenant with them. And this covenant is built upon the foundation of living lives that are loving.
Our psalm response is a lengthy hymn to the covenant. Here we recognize God who “pardons, who heals, and who crowns us with kindness and compassion.” He is a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” Being in a covenantal relationship with God calls us to imitate God – being merciful and gracious to all around us and filled with compassion. To fulfill our own obligations of this covenant, we allow God to transform us so that we CAN be holy and perfect like God is.
The Gospel passage, a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this path. Living by a strict form of vengeful justice is not enough for those who want to be his followers. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth may have been popular outlook in the ancient world – and it’s still exercised even today in many places – but life in the Kingdom of God calls for a different way of interacting with others. Jesus then gives us three examples taken from the social customs of his time to apply the lesson.
Rather than hit back when someone strikes you or attacks you, our response is to be nonviolent, gentle and meek. When someone is demanding of our possessions, we should be willing to relinquish them in a gentle and generous spirit. And when people make demands on our time, we should be willing to be inconvenienced for their sake. In each instance, we are called to disarm those who attack us or offend us by our own willingness to overturn the philosophy of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
The command to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” is turned upside down by the Lord when he insists that his followers must love not only their neighbours, their families, and their friends, but they must also love their enemies as well. This meant for the Jews that they should look at their Roman occupiers and conquerors in a new way, even going so far as to pray for those who might persecute them for their beliefs.
The radical nature of this new law becomes clear when we try to apply these to our own lives today. What does it mean for us as a nation or civil metropolis or even as individuals to “love our enemies?” Or “to pray for those who harm us?”
It certainly is not a call for us to overlook injustice or seek to be victims.
But the Lord does call us to remember that we are all God’s children, good and bad, just and unjust. We may not be in a position to shower our enemies with blessings in the way God does, but we must strive each and every day to at least refrain from seeking revenge. This is the radical call of the Beatitudes!
Christ’s command to love, to be holy and to be perfect is anything but romantic. It may be the most difficult lesson we must follow in order to be true disciples. We have been called to be holy and to be perfect as God is, and this requires from us the virtues of mercy, of graciousness, of kindness, and of compassion modeled on that of God the Father. It requires that we “take no revenge and cherish no grudge.” The society in which we live often is a society that preaches, “do unto others before they can do something bad to you!” For such a society, the call to discipleship is, as St. Paul reminds us in the 2nd reading, “a foolishness.” Paul calls reminds the Corinthians that, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,” He also tells us from his own experience that we can indeed live a life of unselfish love, for we have at our disposal “the Spirit of God [who] dwells in us.” Paul’s ends with very reassuring words that we can be holy, we can be perfect because, “everything belongs to you… and you belong to Christ, and Christ to God.
We are about to enter into a new season of Lent. As a special prayer of preparation, pray again today’s psalm in the quiet of your heart. Then think about how someone’s unselfish love has enriched your own life. And finally, ask God’s grace to forgive someone who has offended you – to forgive them unconditionally as God’s mercy and compassion have always forgiven us.