7th Ordinary Sunday (Year A)
First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18 Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:38 48
“BE HOLY, FOR I, THE LORD, YOUR GOD, AM HOLY.”
It was winter and it had snowed heavily. A group of children were trying to see who could make the straightest track across a snowy field. Only one of them succeeded in making a path which was almost perfectly straight. When asked how he managed to do it, he said, “It was easy. I just kept my eyes fixed on the lightening rod on top of the barn at the end of the field – while the rest of you kept looking at your feet.”
Today is the 7th Ordinary Sunday and the Scripture Readings of today speak of the essence of holiness. The Readings also tell us how this holiness needs to be shown in our lives. The First Reading of today from the Book of Leviticus states it with unequivocal words: "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." This simply asserts that God alone is the source of all holiness and in order to strive towards holiness, our eyes are always to be fixed upon Him. In the concluding part of the Gospel Reading of today from St. Matthew, Jesus too tells his disciples – “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He speaks to his disciples by referring to a law which they were familiar with, the law of retaliation. Within the context of this law, Jesus encourages his disciples to strive for perfection. In the 2nd Reading of today, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul gives yet another reason for us to be holy. He says that 'God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.' Here holiness is shown in the true wisdom that God grants to those who love and seek him.
“BE HOLY, FOR I, THE LORD, YOUR GOD, AM HOLY.”:
In the First Reading of today from the Book of Leviticus, God tells the people of Israel through Moses, to be holy, for He, their God is holy. It is not a suggestion; it is a command, an exhortation, a demand in the strongest terms that God’s people work to be worthy of their God and thus, to be different from the Gentiles. The divine nature is that God is holy, and his holiness consists of his unconditional and magnanimous love, care and concern, mercy and forgiveness towards every human being. So it follows that in order to be holy, we have to be kind & loving, merciful & forgiving and compassionate to our neighbors – and this is what God wants us to be when He calls each one of us to be holy, to be spiritually perfect. Listening to the voice of the Lord, we thus realize what holiness entails: bearing no hatred in one’s heart, foregoing revenge and holding no grudge, particularly towards a fellow citizen. All this is summed up in “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, the merciful God gently guides his chosen people on the path of holiness.
“BE PERFECT, JUST AS YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT.”
The Gospel Reading of today from St Matthew is the continuation of what we read last Sunday. These are the moral teachings of Jesus, where he raises the bar and gives us a new standard - “It was said …... But I say to you.” Last Sunday, Jesus’ teaching was about anger & killing, adultery & lust and about taking oath. This Sunday we hear him teaching about retaliation and love:
One day, a truck driver who was on a long trip, stopped at a restaurant for dinner and ordered for a steak. He was about to start eating, but before could do it, in walked a motorcycle gang, with dirty leather jackets and long, un-kept hair. They took the man’s steak, cut it in six pieces and ate them all. The truck driver said nothing – he got up, went to the counter, paid the bill and walked away. One of the gang members said, “That man couldn’t talk. He didn’t say a word.” Another one said, “He couldn’t fight, either; he didn’t lift a hand.” A waiter who was nearby, joined them and added, “I would say that he couldn’t drive either. On his way out of the parking lot, he ran over six motorcycles crushing all of them.”
Something in us loves this story, because we like retaliation. But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus prescribes forgiving love as the Christian trump card. Even limited vengeance has no place for Jesus; he condemns even the mild form of retaliation: “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 the one who is evil….”. Similarly, in his teaching about love, 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.”
Here we are presented with the most radical section of the Sermon on the Mount. It has to do with retaliation versus loving one's enemy. Jesus presents once again the basic principle and its application. He tells his disciples how their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is quite obvious that Jesus is raising the bar and giving us a new standard of morality for our spiritual perfection, for our holiness – “that you may be children of God.” Also that this new standard is founded upon God Himself – “ for He makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” He again reminds his hearers that more is expected of his disciples than has been laid down in the Old Testament. Here Jesus is not asking us to do something impossible and unreasonable. He tells us to open our eyes and see the reality and discover the most sensible way of relating ourselves with the people around us. He tells us to realize the purpose for which we have been created, namely to be the children of God.
The passage concludes with Jesus saying, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." This obviously is an ideal, a goal to be aimed at. And the perfection intended is not total perfection but rather to aim at that total impartiality of a God who extends his providential care and love equally to all. Love within one's group or fellowship is merely a natural and universal human trait. But by implementing this kind of love, a forgiving love, the disciples were being perfected as the heavenly Father is perfect.
The great sculptor, Michelangelo, was at work on one of his statues when a friend called on him and said – “I can’t see any difference in the statue since I came here a week ago. Have you not been doing any work all the week?” “Yes! I have been working the whole week along,” said the sculptor – “See, I have retouched this part, softened this feature, strengthened this muscle, and put more life into that limb.” “But those are only trifles,” said the friend. “True,” said Michelangelo, “but trifles makes perfection, perfection is no trifle.”
Surely, acquiring holiness or spiritual perfection is never a one day job. We become perfect bit by bit, step by step, enduring suffering day in and day out. We have to keep striving and we have to keep hoping.
“THE TEMPLE OF GOD, WHICH YOU ARE, IS HOLY.”
Coincidentally, today’s Second Reading from St. Paul's 1st Letter to the Corinthians offers a supportive and complementary insight into the Gospel lesson. Actually, it goes deeper in the theme of holiness in relating it to true wisdom. We see St. Paul motivating the faltering Corinthian community to follow their Christian call to holiness: “For the temple of God, which you are, is holy … You belong to Christ, and Christ to God.” Here he is speaking specifically of Christians who form the Body of Christ but, in other ways, every single person is made in the image of the Creator and God is present in some way there. Now these two Temples, within the community and within each individual were being destroyed by division. Some of the Christians claimed to belong to Paul, others to Apollos. In their vain and merely human appraisal of the ministers of the Gospel the Corinthians were displaying their foolishness, judging by the wisdom of the world. He warns the Christian community against all worldly wisdom. He says that true wisdom comes from God and He grants it to those who love and seek Him and it recognizes that everything and every human person belong to Christ, and through him, to God. Holiness integrates the life of believers by focusing it on Jesus Christ and enabling it to rise above the vanity and wisdom of today’s world.
The most excellent way to holiness is love. Jesus Christ will sum up the whole law in love: In love for God and neighbor is found the whole Law and the Prophets. He presents in his Sermon the basic principle of Christian Love. This is said to be the central section of the sermon which gives the concentrated expression of the Christian ethic of personal relations. Jesus tells his disciples that they must love their enemies. He places before them the expression of the old law which stated that they have to love their neighbor and hate the enemy. But the law that Jesus gives says that they must love their enemies and pray for those who are persecuting them. This is necessary to distinguish them from others and to recognize that they are the children of the Father in heaven.
Jesus did, not only preach and teach the above to the people, but he himself lived them in his life. He loved everybody, was kind and merciful towards sinners, was full of compassion towards sick, suffering and downtrodden. He even forgave those who crucified him – 'Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.' He invites each one of us to do the same. Surely it is neither an easy task nor an immediate gain. We need to endure and to persevere in our plight; but above all we need to depend upon God’s grace.
Let us then pray today that we through God’s grace keep striving towards holiness, towards spiritual perfection by doing God’s will in our life, so that Holy Spirit really dwells in us and that we truly become the children of God. And this is the Good News of today.