Accepting the New Commandment
February 19, 2017
THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF YEAR A
Today, is it possible to be fully human without being “fully divine”? What, for a Christian, does it mean to “be holy”? What does it mean to “be perfect”? Can we?
The Entrance Antiphon (Psalm 13) focuses us on God’s love and faithfulness: “I will sing to the Lord for his goodness to me.” This is the focus we ask for in the Opening Prayer: “Father, keep before us the wisdom and love you have revealed in your Son.” They are the same: the height of God’s wisdom and love were both revealed in the “foolishness” of the cross and Christ’s insistence that to be his disciples we must “endure evil with love” as he did. The alternate Opening Prayer leads us to discipleship: “Faith in your word is the way to wisdom, and to ponder your divine plan is to grow in truth.” This is what the Liturgy of the Word invites.
Be Holy as God
Leviticus 19:1-18: We sometimes speak as if the God of the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) and of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were two different Gods: the first a God of vengeance and violence; the second a God of mercy and gentleness. But they are one and the same God. It is just that when God reveals himself to humans, the pure light of his Truth and Being comes to us shining through the filter of human cultural assumptions and prejudices.
It is God’s pure light; and even when it “shines in the darkness,” the darkness “cannot overcome it.” But we have to understand that, when God speaks through human beings, he speaks as those human beings speak. He doesn’t bypass their humanity and shine through them as through perfectly transparent glass that has no color of its own. If he wanted to do that, he would not use human instruments at all, but just make his own words appear on paper somewhere, or write them on a wall. Then they would be exactly the same for all time, and there would be no cultural influence on them except for the language they were written in. Some “people of the Book” (Jews, Christians and Moslems, who all believe in one God revealing himself in the words of the Bible) want to exclude the cultural influence by insisting on a “sacred language” which alone can authentically transmit God’s thought as no “vernacular” translation can. Whether we think God only speaks Hebrew, Arabic or Latin, we are misunderstanding the nature of revelation. God reveals himself equally in all languages and in none. He identifies with the person he is inspiring to write, and expresses himself in and through that person in a way consistent with that individual’s own culture and personality. Matthew’s mother, hearing his Gospel, would have recognized immediately, “That’s my boy!”
God makes sure, however, that there will be no distortion of what he is actually saying, even though we may have difficulty at times distinguishing the content from the form of its expression. This is particularly true when the “literary form” is storytelling or interpretation of historical events.
Sometimes, however, God speaks about himself and about who and what he is, in a way that seems to escape all the cultural filters like rays of the sun shining through a break in the clouds. Today’s reading is like that.
“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” This is pure God! Different cultures might understand differently what “holy” means, but the principle stands in all of them.
When Leviticus gets concrete and goes into detail about it, we see both cultural elements and elements that transcend cultural limitations. The first of the omitted verses says, speaking absolutely, “Do not turn to idols.” That follows from the Great Commandment of all monotheistic religions that recognize God as God: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” But the second half of the sentence, “or make cast images for yourselves,” was only a particular means to the first which, while necessary in a culture surrounded by people who worshiped statues, is no longer relevant in a culture like ours, where idolatry takes a different form. We make statues of heroes, beauties and saints, but we don’t worship any of them. Unfortunately, we don’t make statues of the values we do worship —power, technology, affluence, sex, sports, etc. — and so we do not recognize them as idols.
When God is quoted as assigning punishments for violations of particular commandments, these are not intended as revelations of the nature of God. They don’t say God is a punisher. They say, in language, images and actions that would help the people of the time understand, “This is really bad. If you do this, bad stuff is going to happen.” We do the same thing when we try to warn children away from dangerous actions by making up all sorts of fictitious consequences to scare them with because they can’t understand or appreciate the real consequences.
When Leviticus gets to the verses quoted in the reading, however, this is too far above every human ideal to be an expression of culture. God is telling us how to be “holy as God is holy”:
You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.... Take no revenge and cherish no grudge.... You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The reason given is, “I am the LORD.” This is how God is, so this is how we need to be. The Responsorial (Psalm 103) says, “The Lord is kind and merciful”; that is, “Be kind and merciful for I the Lord your God am kind and merciful.” No cultural filter here.
Be Perfect in Love
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes the Old Law to a new level, transforming it from rules of good human behavior to guidelines for living on the level of God. But what he says in Matthew 5:38-48 is already basically present in the reading from Leviticus. He simply makes more clear and explicit what it means to “be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” It means, above all, to live out his command of “perfect love.” By the gift of sharing in God’s divine life (the definition of “grace”), we are called and enabled to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” Since “God is love,” to be perfect like God is to be perfect in love.
Genesis says God “looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” This is even more true of humans, created in the image of God himself. So Jesus is teaching us to love like God when he tells us we need to love one another and value relationship with one another more than all created things: more than our possessions (“give to everyone who begs or wants to borrow from you;” if someone want to steal the shirt off your back, “hand over your coat as well”), more than our time (if someone imposes, go the “extra mile”), more than our desire to avoid hurt and rejection (“turn the other cheek”). He says “offer no resistance to one who is evil” for the sake of holding on to any created thing. “My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”
You Are That Temple
This command is beyond human goodness. But in 1Corinthians 3:16-23 Paul catches us up short in our objections: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?... God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” Because we are holy, we have to act like God. This means loving one another, not just as ourselves, but according to the “new commandment” Jesus gave: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
By human cultural standards, the love Jesus orders is crazy. But we are not just human; we are divine. Our whole standard of judgment is different. Paul writes: “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” And vice-versa: the “wisdom and love” revealed in the crucified Jesus is foolishness to this world. No one who has the power to kill an enemy will choose to be killed instead. But we call that “perfect love.”
Do you trust more in your “gut” cultural instincts or in God’s word?
Seek “wisdom and love ”through reflection on God’s word. Set a time.
 1Corinthians 1:18-25; Matthew 16:21-25.
 John 1:5.
 Deuteronomy 6:4-5.
 1John 4:8,16.
 John 13:34; 15:12; Romans 13:8; 1John 4:7-12.