Sunday, February 19, 2017

Year A Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev 19:1-2.17-18; Ps 103:1-; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Matt 5:38-48

In today's Gospel, taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Lord no doubt deliberately echoes the words God spoke to Moses in our first reading about being holy, or perfect, as God is holy and perfect. This prompts the question, what does it mean to be holy, or perfect?

The short answer to this question is: To be holy and perfect is to be like God. Since God fully revealed himself in Jesus, to be holy is to be like Jesus. To be like Jesus requires one “to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37.39). To be holy, therefore, is nothing other than to love perfectly. What is sin if not the refusal to love God and/or your neighbor? While there are ways we love God that are distinct from how we are to love our neighbor, Scripture is clear: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

It has been said of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that after the Beatitudes, with which the Sermon begins, the rest is about how to live them. Last week we began to hear Jesus’ so-called theses and anti-theses. In one of these, Jesus taught: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt 5:21-22a).

Jesus’ thesis in this part of the Sermon is the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill” (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17). His anti-thesis, which begins with the words, “But I say to you,” sets the bar considerably higher than not killing others. He taught that remaining angry, which is a choice, also makes one liable to judgment and, if a person persists in choosing to remain angry, s/he may be liable “to fiery Ghenna” (Matt 5:22c), which is a way of referring to hell. In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues his theses and anti-theses concerning the commandment not to kill, expanding even further on the love that sanctifies, or makes one holy. He does this by first addressing the so-called lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Jesus expresses the lex talionis in its most familiar form: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It means to give as good you get, or perhaps even to escalate the violence. For example, if someone punches you, maybe you should stab him. The Lord uses a straightforward example, being struck by another person: “offer no resistance to one who is evil,” Jesus teaches, “When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matt 5:39). Because, according to the Beatitudes, we are to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9), the Lord teaches us to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be violent in the face of violence.

As in all things, Jesus is not content with merely telling us how to act. He demonstrated what he taught when, during his passion, he offered no resistance to those who arrested, beat, whipped, spat upon, insulted, and finally crucified him. As Tevya, the main character in Fiddler on the Roof, observed concerning the lex talionis: “’An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!’ Very good. That way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

Jesus does not limit his teaching to passivity in the face of violence. He calls on his followers to give an active response. This is where he brings his teaching concerning the commandment not to kill to its fullest expression: “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” (Matt 5:43-44). To love your enemies, to pray for those who seek to do you harm, is what it means to love perfectly, to be holy, to be like Christ, to be perfect as the Father is perfect. God loves everyone, even those who persist in doing evil. It is important to note that God loves you even when you are guilty of doing evil. Loving your neighbor as you love yourself means desiring that they receive divine mercy as much as you desire divine mercy for yourself. For proof, we need look no further than our Psalm response: “The Lord is kind and merciful.” The attitude “God forgive me but damn him” is damnable.

Loving one’s enemies is one of the things that makes Jesus’ followers distinct from everyone else. The Lord himself pointed out, if you only love those who love you how are you different from the tax collectors and pagans? It’s easy, it requires no change of heart, to love people who love you. Christ’s teaching to love your enemies is a huge provocation, a tremendous challenge. But it is a non-negotiable, something you must do if you would call yourself a Christian.

A typical response to this teaching is attempting to carve out exemptions: “What about what this person did? What about what that person said?” We need God’s grace to love as Jesus loved. We need God’s grace to become holy. The primary means God puts at our disposal to receive his grace are the sacraments. Hence, you should go to confession regularly. God makes you holier by forgiving your sins. We should also pray, fast, and selflessly serve others.

St. Paul, in our second reading, articulates well that to live as a Christian often seems like foolishness: “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, For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God” (1 Cor 3:18-19). Living according to the wisdom of the world, which teaches you to live by the lex talionis, is to live the law of karma instead of living in the grace of God. According to Jesus, living the lex talionis is the highway to hell.

One of the most famous lines written by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is, “hell is other people.” Like a lot of famous lines, this line is often taken out of context and misused. The line comes from Sartre's one act play, the English title of which is No Exit. The play, set in hell, begins with the arrival of three people in the inferno. Naturally, they try to figure out what led them there and what punishments they’re in for. Without too much delay, they realize that there is no one there to punish them; being put together is their punishment. Hence, the relevant quote is: “All those glances that I eat … Ha, you’re only two? I thought you were much more numerous. So that’s hell. … I never thought You remember: the sulphur, the stake, the grill. Oh, What a joke. No need to grill: hell is other people.” With reference to Jesus' teaching, hell is the realm of people who refuse to be loved and to love. This confirms what most of us have experienced in one way or another: the absence of love, the refusal to love, is hell.

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