Sunday Lectionary: …as your heavenly Father is perfect

Sermon

Sermon

This week I’m leading Bible Study at St. Brigid’s, so once again I’m posting my notes for this Sunday’s Mass Readings…

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

This week’s Readings speaks to both the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, focussing on the idea that morality flows from God, that living a holy life flows from imitation of God.

1st Reading (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18)

The name of this book comes from the Greek translation of the Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX). The name “Leviticus” comes from the Greek word, leuitikos, which means “pertaining to the Levites”, since it initially appears to be chiefly concerned with the regulation of the priests. Following the incident with the Golden Calf, all priests came from the Tribe of Levi. However, it should be pointed out that the majority of regulations in this book actually concern Israelite laity.

The book of Leviticus is vital to our understanding the Jewish concepts of cleanliness, sacrifice and priesthood. This particular section of Leviticus (Chapters 17-25) forms the “Holiness Code” of the people Israel, describing what they must do in order to remain a holy people. While much of what this book commands relates to the ceremonial law (and is therefore not binding on Christians) it also provides much of the context to understand Jesus’ life and ministry and, in particular, his saving sacrifice.

The extract from Leviticus in this Sunday’s First Reading may surprise many. People usually associate judgement and legalism with the Old Testament, and the New Testament with grace and forgiveness. However, this passage shows it to be an inaccurate picture of Scripture. We find in the First Reading, exhortations to holiness, inner purity, forgiveness and even the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

Text

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.”

Questions

  • Who is speaking in this text?
  • To whom does Moses speak?
  • What is the standard of holiness setup by this passage?
  • What does “holy” mean?
  • How are the commands in this passage liberating?
  • Is it wrong to reprove someone? If not, how could it become sinful?
  • Where else have you heard the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”? Is it surprising to find it here in the Old Testament? If so, why?
  • In what way does Jesus’ teaching surpass what we find here?

Commentary

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: …

Moses is a prophet and mediator.

God tells him to speak to the Children of Israel on His behalf.

God is giving instructions which will set Israel apart from the immoral Canaanites.

Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

The people are called to holiness and this moral injunction finds its foundation in God’s own character. In theology, we call this the “imitatio Dei”. It is the idea that imitation of God is the driving factor in morality. We are to be kind, forgiving and generous because God is all of these things. St. Paul writes the following to the Ephesians:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

– Ephesians 5:1-2

This is a concept will be expanded upon by Jesus in the Gospel.

The word “holy” appears more often in Leviticus than in any other book of the Bible. It means sacred, set apart for God and His purposes.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. 

We often think of the Old Testament as related exclusively to exterior action and purity, but this verse shows that, even prior to Christ, interior disposition was considered extremely important.

I find the verb used here to be very telling. To “bear” something means to carry something. To “bear hatred” means to carry it around with us wherever we go and to exhaust energy in supporting it. When considered in these terms, it shows the insanity of “bear[ing] hatred”. It both exhausts and hurts us.

Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. 

This verse implies that it is possible to reprove someone in two different ways, one way where you can incur sin yourself and another way in which you do not. Obviously, we want the latter… In what way might we “incur sin” when we “reprove” others? Given the context of the preceding and following verses, I would suggest that it relates to one’s motivations and interior disposition while doing so. When I reprove, am I free from hatred? Do I truly have the other person’s best interests at heart?

In His teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a pattern to follow when it comes to calling back those who stray:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault… if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you… If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector 

– Matthew 18:15-20

As an alternative interpretation, could this verse mean that we incur sin if we fail to correct a brother?

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

Once again, I find the verb of this command to be illuminating. If we “cherish” something, it means we protect it, value it, keep it safe. We typically talk about “cherish[ing]” children or relationships so that they grow. We are told that we can’t do that with grudges.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”

We more commonly associate this saying with Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27) and the Apostles in their epistles (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8), but here we discover it to be a command of the Old Testament. According to Jesus, this command, together with Deuteronomy 6:5, sum up the whole of the Law and the Prophets: love of God and love of neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39 & Mark 12:30-31).

The difference is that, in the New Testament, Jesus shows us what “lov[ing] your neighbour as yourself” truly looks like.

Psalm (Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13)

In this psalm, David reflects upon the nation’s history and how God has responded to Israel’s repeated rejection of Him. The character of God is described in detail, particularly in terms of forgiveness and mercy. In the First Reading, the Israelites were told to be holy like God (“imitatio Dei”) and therefore this psalm gives us a pattern to follow and imitate.

Text

R. (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.

Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.

R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.

R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.

R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.

R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

Questions

  • How would you summarize the description of God’s character in this psalm?
  • Why does the psalmist describe our sins being taken away from us “As far as the east is from the west”? Why not north and south?

Commentary

R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

Essential characteristics of God.

Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.

The Psalmist speaks to his own soul, calling it to worship.

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.

The Psalmist exhorts his soul to remember all the blessings received from the Lord.

He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.

The characteristics mentioned in the refrain are spoken of here. God forgives. God heals.

He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.

This verse points forward to restoration and ultimately Resurrection.

The word “kindness” mentioned here is the Hebrew word “hesed”, which relates to covenant love or fidelity. God is faithful to His covenant which makes us His family.

Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.

Once more, God’s mercy is extolled.

Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.

God’s mercy is described. He shows His mercy in His leniency – were we to really receive the punishments our sins deserved, we’d be in serious trouble…

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.

If you travel north, you eventually start travelling south again. However, if you travel eastwards, you continue to travel eastwards indefinitely. The same is true if you travel westwards. East and west are infinitely far apart – this is how far He has removed our sins from us.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.

An analogy of fatherhood is employed, although it is worth noting that earthly fatherhood is only a mere shadow of God’s fatherhood since He is the perfect Father.

The “fear” which is mentioned in this translation might be better rendered as “awe”. It is a recognition of who God is and who we are.

2nd Reading (1 Corinthians 3:16-23)

Paul writes to the Church at Corinth. The city was extremely religious and the centrepiece of the city’s pagan worship was the temple of Venus/Aphrodite, which involved considerable temple prostitution. This, no doubt, provides the backdrop for Paul’s exhortation to holiness amid such moral pollution. The passage is also probably greatly influenced by Paul’s time in Athens, speaking with the philosophers, the “wise” of the day…

Text

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.

Questions

  • How does Paul describe the Corinthian Church and individual Christians?
  • If you are the “temple of God”, how should that affect the way you live?
  • From where does our dignity come?
  • How does this passage relate to the First Reading?

Commentary

Brothers and sisters: …

All Christians are in the family of God since they share in the New Covenant.

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

Paul describes the Corinthian Church as a Temple (as opposed to individual Christians being Temples). This picks up on the theme from the First Reading since, if they are a temple, then they are holy (“set apart”).

The Church as “Temple”, flows from the idea that Jesus’ Body is the New Temple. We see this clearly expressed in the Gospel of John. His body is “destroyed” and “rebuilt” three days later.

Later in Corinthians 6:19, Paul describes each individual Christian as a Temple. A Temple is a place of worship and where sacrifice take place. In his Epistle to Romans, Paul describes what this temple worship and sacrifice should look like:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

– Romans 12:1-2

The Temple of Solomon represents a foreshadow of Christ’s own Body, each individual Christian, the local congregation and the Church universal (Ephesians 2:19-22).

How do you behave around the Tabernacle at Church? Imagine for a moment, that your parish priest asks you to take home the Tabernacle while there is building work going on at the parish. As you drove back home with the Tabernacle, how would you drive? How would you respond if another driver cut you up? How would you behave if that Tabernacle was kept in your front room? What would you watch on TV? I ask these questions because each individual Christian is an image bearer of God, each individual Christian is a Temple, holy (“set apart”). We should have a similar kind of reverence for own bodies and for our fellow Christians, in much the same way we have reverence for the Eucharist in the Tabernacle.

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

This is a continuation of a metaphor which Paul had begun prior to the start of this passage. Earlier he has said that diligent builders will receive a reward (1 Corinthians 3:14) and careless ones will receive a purging during their salvation (1 Corinthians 3:15). He now says that those who are destructive will find themselves destroyed.

Desecration of a temple as a heinous crime. Paul is referring to the Corinthians who are tearing apart the Corinthian Church with quarrelling and factions.

“Paul says this in order to prick the consciences of those who have corrupted their bodies through evil living, especially the man who was having an affair with his father’s wife.”

– The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles 1 Corinthians 3,17

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, …

Man prides himself on wisdom, but true wisdom comes from God. Paul no doubt is remembering his time in Athens dealing with the “wisdom” of the Philosophers. The culmination of Christian “foolishness” is the cross and resurrection (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), both of which were stumbling blocks for the Athenians (Acts 17).

The wisdom of God is not always easy to grasp. This is worth remembering when we come to wrestle with Jesus’ hard teachings in today’s Gospel (“turn the other cheek” etc).

…for it is written: God catches the wise in their own ruses, …

This comes from Job:

He takes the wise in their own craftiness;
    and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.

– Job 5:13

These words are spoken by Job’s “friend” Eliphaz, saying that God frustrates the proud and lifts up the lowly.

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

This comes from the Psalms:

the Lord, knows the thoughts of man,
    that they are but a breath.

– Psalm 94:11

This is a plea for God to bring down those whose wickedness seems to go unnoticed by God.

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.

There should be no boasting in men. The Corinthians were notorious for bragging about who had baptized them and thereby creating divisions within the Corinthian Church. The “Paul” mentioned is St. Paul himself. “Apollos” was an early Christian teacher and missionary. “Cephas” is another name of St. Peter.

When Paul says that “all belong to you”, he is referring to the inheritance we have by virtue of our union with Christ. He explains this more in another letter:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 

– 2 Corinthians 8:9

As a result of being “rich” through Christ, we are released to share freely the temporal things of this world with those in need and to wholeheartedly abandon ourselves to Christ.

Gospel (Matthew 5:38-48)

This is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks. Last week we began the section known as the “six antitheses”. Last week we read about the antitheses related to murder, adultery, divorce and swearing. Today we pick up the remaining two which concern revenge and enemies. We receive teaching on how to bear insults and to be generous with our goods and with our time.

Jesus’ teaching is easy to admire from a distance, but exceptionally challenging when it comes to embracing what He says as truth to be implemented in daily life. Do we really pray for our enemies? Do we ask for God’s blessings on those with whom we do not see eye-to-eye? Those at work? In politics? As we enter the final weeks before Lent, we are to examine our consciences by testing them against the uncompromising (yet liberating) words of the Lord.

Text

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.”

Questions

  • Which two teachings does Jesus overturn here?
  • How do you understand the phrase “An eye for an eye”? What was its original intent? Do you think it’s fair standard? How can this standard be abused? How does Jesus counter it?
  • On what basis does Jesus exhort love of neighbour?
  • In light of Jesus’ teaching, is self-defense allowed?
  • What does “love your neighbour” mean? Does it mean being nice to people?
  • What would you life look like if you truly embraced these words of Jesus?
  • Which of Jesus’ sayings here do you find most challenging? Why?
  • How is this Gospel linked to the First Reading?
  • How does it relate to the Second Reading?

Commentary

Jesus said to his disciples:

This is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount.

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

Each of the six antitheses follows the same pattern. Jesus says “You have heard that it was said…” where he quotes the Law and then goes on to say “…but I say to you….” and he offers a counter statement.

It is hard to underestimate how shocking Jesus’ words would have sounded to His initial audience (and they’re still extremely shocking to us today!).

In these antitheses, Jesus was correcting common interpretations of Moses’ teaching and He even went as far as to correct the teaching itself! In this, we see an image of Jesus as the New Moses, the giver of the New Law:

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land,

– Deuteronomy 34:10-11

Who else could have the authority to overturn these commandments but God Himself? This is why the “six antitheses” are implicit claims to divinity on the part of Jesus.

The particular command here comes from Exodus 21:24. This is known as the “Lex Talionis” (the law of retaliation) and is often misunderstood.  It was not normally taken literally by the Children of Israel, but served as the principle by which judges assessed punishment, ensuring that the punishment fit the crime.

Normally, if a man took out your eye, your inclination would be to put out both of his eyes or maybe even kill him. The prevailing practice in the Middle East at the time was of unlimited retribution. The Lex Talionis was meant to limit this.

This verse was a guide for running the judicial system of Israel. It wasn’t meant for personal morality and it soon became a justification for personal score settling.

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

Jesus overturns the Lex Talionis, demanding a better response:

Thus our Lord by doing away all retaliation, cuts off the beginnings of sin. So the Law corrects faults, the Gospel removes their occasions.

– St. Jerome

Jesus Himself follows His own teaching in His Passion:

  • He is struck by the High Priest’s servant and the Roman Soldiers
  • He carries the cross
  • He gives up his clothes to the soldiers
  • He prays for those who kill him etc.

These are all exhortations He is about to give us in this sermon…

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

A strike on the right cheek would be a backslap for a right-handed person and was considered a deep insult (Lamentations 3:30)

This does not exclude self-defense or the protection of others. This situation is not life-or-death, but relates to insult. For Catholic teaching on this subject, please see the Catechism #2263-2267. We have a moral obligation to protect the innocent. Even Jesus Himself used some level of force when cleansing the Temple (John 2:15-16).

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

Jesus is teaching us to do more than simply avoid evil, we are to bless, to give freely.

A “tunic” is the undergarment and the “cloak” is a loose garment on the outside.

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

In the Holy Land at the time, a Roman soldier could press Jews into temporary service (e.g. when Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross). Jesus is telling us to go to the next level and freely serve.

Oswald Chambers said that Christianity is truly seen not in the first mile, but in the second. We often talk about preaching with our actions, but do we delude ourselves when we say this? Are our actions those of the first mile, or the second?

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

Generosity that bears no grudges.

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

We now move to the second antithesis…

This is not an explicit command in the Old Testament, but a good summary of the teaching found there and may be seen as a combination of two passages: Leviticus 19:13-18 and Deuteronomy 20:16-18.

In last week’s passage, Jesus overturned Moses’ troubling allowance of remarriage and in this week’s passage, Jesus overturns the troubling aspect of total war against the Canaanites.

Elsewhere in Scripture, we see that the definition of “neighbour” was restricted only to fellow countrymen, but this gets addressed in the story which contains the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

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

Radical overturning of the old way of things and is exemplified in the life (and death) of Jesus.

Many measuring the commandments of God by their own weakness, not by the strength of the saints, hold these commands for impossible, and say that it is virtue enough not to hate our enemies; but to love them is a command beyond human nature to obey. But it must be understood that Christ enjoins not impossibilities but perfection. Such was the temper of David towards Saul and Absalom; the Martyr Stephen also prayed for his enemies while they stoned him, and Paul wished himself anathema for the sake of his persecutors [Rom 9:3]. Jesus both taught and did the same, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

– St. Jerome

…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.

Here we return to the “imitatio Dei”The reason for blessing the good and the bad, is because God does the same. He loves the unlovable and comes to save the rebellious sinner:

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

– Romans 5:8

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?

For those who would wish to bray about their kindness… It’s natural to love those who love you. It’s also not really love if you do good to others because of what you can get out of it. If that is the case, then what is there to boast about?

The “tax collectors” and “gentiles” were both despised by the Jews, the former as traitors and the latter as unclean foreigners. By pointing out that they have similar behaviour, Jesus is showing that his followers have nothing to boast about if they do the same.

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

The ultimate reason for mercy and holiness is imitation of God. The word “perfect” here means “whole”.

Resources

These are some of the resources I read or listened to in preparing these notes:

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