No one could deny that the Jewish law sets a very high standard. In this reading from Leviticus chapter 19, we’re told to “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.” Be holy as God is holy? Seriously? The Gospel today (Matthew 5: 38-48) concludes with Jesus saying: “Be therefore perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) Does anyone here actually think that you have managed to achieve this or accomplish that? Has anyone managed to strike this one off your eternal plan ‘to-do list’ and now you are asking, okay, so what next? This extreme call to model our lives on nothing less than the moral perfection and holiness of God is an extraordinary call. It is extraordinary in part because the Lord obviously believes that we can do this; that there is something within us that enables us to achieve this in some measure, that opens to us the possibility of true holiness and perfection. What is this attribute? It is the way that we have been created with this possibility for God, this openness to the ways of God, or as the Catholic tradition has described it over the centuries: we have a capacity for God because we have been created in the ‘imago Dei’ – in the image of God. The very image and likeness of God that we have been created in calls us into the fullness of God’s very life. This incredible standard has been set by the Jewish law; yet over the centuries, the Jewish people – like us – tried to modify and redefine and narrow down the law to make it more restrictive and therefore easier to fulfill. Without this reinterpretation of the law, all that they could know was the judgement of the law and the truth of their failure before the standard of the law. For example the commandment that concludes our first reading today, from Leviticus 19:18, which is “You must love your neighbour as yourself,” was redefined. Surely, it was argued, that cannot mean that we are called to love everybody equally – surely it doesn’t mean that we have to love all of geographical neighbours because many of those people are offensive to us – the ones who persecute us, or challenge us, or worship in a different way? Surely it doesn’t mean we have to love the people who dress badly, or smell funny, or drive those cars, or live in that neighbourhood, or vote for that party and listen to that music? Surely it only means that we have to love fellow Jews [Catholics] – especially the ones who are striving like us to be faithful to the commandments? No – the Lord calls us to this extraordinary height – calling us into perfection and union in this life with God.
Over the last two weeks, we have had these six examples where Jesus has given us new interpretations of the traditional Mosaic law, saying: “You have heard how it was said…” and then redefining them in radical ways by offering a new understanding of the law by saying: “but I say to you…” He calls us into a deeper observance and a more holistic fulfillment. Today we have the final two examples of these new antithesis. “Jesus begins by saying that ‘You have heard how it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” The lex talionis as it is called is a very good law for society since it is meant to limit violence and the escalation of revenge. But Jesus gives us a radical challenge by inviting us to ‘offer the wicked person no resistance.’ The challenge has been felt across the centuries whenever Christians have tried to be faithful to this radical teaching.
We need to understand the context of each of the three examples that Jesus offers if we are to make proper sense of them. When Jesus says if someone hits you on the right cheek, it is presumed that they are a superior, treating you as a slave or a child – as a mere object, and shaming you with the back-handed slap across your face. So when Jesus invites us to offer the left cheek as well – he is saying to the person who has just hit him: you may hit me again, but now you will not hit me as someone inferior to you, but you will treat me as an equal. It is an act of peaceful defiance.
In the second example where a person if taking you to court and wants to take away your tunic, Jesus says to offer your cloak as well. In that society, most people would only own and therefore wear these two items of clothing. So by taking off not just your tunic but also your cloak, and offering it to the person in the courtroom, then you are going to be standing there naked before them, and shaming them by the brutality of their claim which is revealed in your nudity. Again, an act of defiance.
Finally in the third example, we know that Roman law allowed a soldier to force a Jewish person to march with them, but they were restricted to only doing this for one mile. By going two miles instead, you are forcing the soldier to breach the law, and perhaps if a commanding officer sees this taking place, then the soldier will probably get in trouble for this offence. All of these are then ways of redefining the violence and providing a people who are persecuted with an intelligent, peaceful response.
This call then for us to love our enemies as well as our friends is a call to remember our original call and the nature of who we truly are, as people who were created in his image and likeness and who he chose to love us first. Just as Jesus, when he was asked what is the greatest of the 613 mitzvah or commandments, he responded first with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and then quickly added the final line of our first reading today, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Those last two words are crucial to this – as yourself. How do we respond to this call to love God and love our neighbour? The only way that we can fulfill these laws is by allowing God to love us first. We need to respond to the call that God places upon our lives and respond to the invitation into a relationship with him. We cannot love God; we cannot love any of our neighbours – until we first respond profoundly to the love of God and open ourselves to this love of God.
This call to perfection is not something that is static. The word in the Greek language presumes a very dynamic relationship and a sense of being called into perfection, completion and wholeness. It is a call that we have seen lived out in the lives of so many saints across the centuries. None of them would ever claim that they had achieved holiness or perfection. But they certainly strove for it and made the desire for holiness to be the habit of their lives. The word for perfection here has a sense of orientation about it. It presumes that we have a particular direction to our lives, and what Jesus calls us to today is to have our orientation and direction firmly focussed upon God the Father. It calls us to have our whole heart and energy directed towards God, so that all we desire and long for is directed towards the holiness and perfection of God. The call to be perfect is an invitation to make this drive towards completion the project of our lives. We are called to be holy because God longs to share his holiness with us. We are called to be perfect and we are able to be perfect, because God shares this perfection with us. Let us long for that. Let us make this the story of our lives. Let us strive to bring our lives into conformity with the perfect and beautiful life of Jesus.
Sunday 07, Year A.