7th Sunday in O T Year: A
Lev.19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor.3:16-23; Mt.5:38-48
Story: Two friends were walking through the desert. During some point of the journey, they had an argument; and one friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, wrote in the sand: “Today my best friend slapped me in the face.”
They kept on walking, until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but the friend saved him. After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: “Today my best friend saved my life.”
The friend who had slapped and saved his best friend asked him, “after I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now, you write on a stone, why?” The friend replied “when someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.”
We all like our friends and we want to remember their birthdays and other special occasions. If they need our help, we are glad to be able to lend a hand, offer a listening ear, share our time or give some useful advice.
In contrast, we are not quite so kind to the people we dislike. If we really dislike them, to the point of hatred, then we may be tempted to treat them unjustly or, at least, damage their character by slandering them and gossiping about them. For Christian, this type of behavior is unthinkable, precisely because Jesus explicitly forbade it.
During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his audience about the Old Law before taking them forward to the perfection of the New Law: ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’(Mt 5:43-44).
Today’s readings explain the basis of Jewish and Christian morality, namely, the holiness of the loving, merciful and compassionate God. God’s chosen people were, and are, expected to be holy people, sharing God’s holiness by embodying His love, mercy and forgiveness.
The first reading, from the book of Leviticus, gives the holiness code: “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.” It also gives us the way to share God’s holiness: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The reading further instructs us that when we refuse to take revenge or bear a grudge against another we trying to imitate the holiness of God. The responsorial psalm challenges us to be like our God, kind and merciful and forgiving.
In the second reading, St. Paul gives us an additional reason to be holy. We are to keep our bodies holy because we are the temples of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of God lives in us. The indwelling Holy Spirit helps us by His gifts, fruits and charismas to live the very life of Christ.
In the Gospel passages taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemns even the mild form of the “Law of the Talion” the tribal law of retaliation. Instead of the restricted retaliation allowed by Moses, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. For Jesus, retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, although graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength, discipline of character as well as strengthening by God’s grace.
The second part of today’s Gospel passage is the central part of the Sermon on the Mount, giving us the Christian ethic of personal relationships: love one’s neighbors and forgive one’s enemies. It tells us that what makes Christians different is the grace with which they treat others with loving kindness and mercy, even if they don’t deserve it. We have to love our enemies with agape love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them.
Jesus gives us a goal today. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Some will say: “Well, what kind of a goal is that? Nobody can be equal to God anyway. So what’s the point?” How can we, mere mortals that we are with all of our faults and failures, be as perfect as God is perfect? Good point. It’s sort of like telling a child who has just learned simple arithmetic to solve a problem requiring calculus.
We need, of course, to look deeper into the words of Jesus. He uses an Aramaic word (the language He spoke) that carries the idea of completeness in the word “perfect.” Be ye complete as your Heavenly father is complete, is what Jesus is saying. Love completely as God loves completely. Be ye mature and grown up as your heavenly Father is fully mature in His love and fully mature in the way He treats others. He loves completely, without boundaries.
Moses instructed the Israelites to follow tit-for-tat retaliation, rather than to wreak total destruction upon their enemies. That is, instead of mutilating or murdering all the members of the offender’s family or tribe, they should discover the offender and only punish him/her with an equal mutilation or harm. Later, a milder version of this law was substituted. It demanded monetary compensation as decided by a judge in place of physical punishment.
By advising, “Turn to him the other cheek,” Jesus instructs his followers to forgive an insult gracefully and convert the offender. He commands that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us to prove that we are children of a merciful heavenly Father. The meaning of “turn the other cheek” is “don’t return insult for insult.” The message of Jesus is, “Don’t retaliate.” Instead, we are to win over the aggressor with tough, wise love, so that we may win people to Christ and transform human society into the Kingdom of God.
We need to love our neighbors and our enemies too: The Greek word used for loving enemies is not Storge (natural love towards family members), or Philia (love of close friends), or Eros (passionate love between a young man and woman), but Agápe which is the invincible benevolence or good will for another’s highest good.
Since Agápe is not natural, practicing it is possible only with God’s help. Agápe love is a choice more than a feeling. We choose to love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them. We have in the Acts of the Apostles the example of St. Stephen, the first martyr, who prayed for those who were putting him to death.
We need to have a forgiving heart: Jesus demands that we should forgive, pardon and be generous whether or not our offenders deserve it, and even if we are not loved in return. He also tells us to pray for those who willfully cause us suffering, hardship and unhappiness.
We are to try to be perfect, to be like God: We become perfect when we fulfill God’s purpose in creating us, i.e., when we become Godlike by cooperating with His grace. We become perfect when we try to love as God loves, to forgive as God forgives and to show unconditional good will and universal benevolence as God does.