A theme running through this week’s readings is love – but not the kind of emotional feeling such as those portrayed in causal speech, where we say such things as, ’I love ice cream.’ A good reminder of what love means in a Christian sense is to read Chapter 13 in First Corinthians. One of the greatest challenges to living fully in love is found in Jesus’ words in the gospel today.
The readings are available online here.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
The name of this book, one of the first five in the Old Testament, comes from Levi, the tribe of Israel dedicated to the service in the temple. Its detailed descriptions of their ritual requirements are now of little interest to most Christians. The book, however, has some memorable words especially the ones in today’s selection. The first sentence is the opening to the part of the book labelled ‘The Holiness Code’ which speaks of ways to live out the lasting truth that, because God is holy, the people of God must also strive to be holy. The liturgy then jumps ahead in Leviticus to the background for the gospel.
When Jesus was asked, ‘What is the greatest commandment?’ He quoted two instead of one, including this from Leviticus: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. (Matthew 22:34-30) In this we reflect the holiness of God’s love for the world.
Psalm 102/103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13
This psalm of praise for God’s love picks up a theme we will hear in the gospel, of God’s constant forgiveness, showering mercy and blessings without regard to worthiness, but because of his own compassion and love.
I Corinthians 3:16-23
One concern of this selection is still that of the past two weeks, correcting the wrong ideas of wisdom among the Corinthians. It also picks up another problem in their church with people choosing factions based on different leaders. One group was ‘for Paul’ himself, but others claimed Apollos who seems to have taken on leadership after Paul left, or Cephas – probably Peter as this name is Aramaic for the ‘rock’ as Jesus named him. What is important, St Paul tells them, is that all ultimately comes from God, and there should be no divisions based on human leaders. This message is still relevant today with divisions between Christians and also within our Church.
Before that, Paul tells them they are the temple of God, which could have been a shock to hear at the time when the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem, and at the heart of Jewish worship (as described in detail in Leviticus.) In taking the indwelling of God within each Christian and in their community as something very real, Paul wants them to realise there is no place for human factions. Instead everything that comes to them in the present and the future is there for leading them into the presence of Christ, and Christ being of the God (‘the Father’) we live in God as God lives within us as if in the temple.
The quotations in this section come from Job 5:13 and Psalm 94/93:11. Paul, good Pharisee he was once, has an intimate knowledge of the older scriptures and calls them to mind when needed to make a point.
This selection carries on from last week with Jesus refining the old Law in the form of ‘You have heard…but I say….’ The original idea of the old law of ‘eye for eye’ was to limit the vengeance in reacting to a personal injury. It set a limit in their legal justice system so that the revenge allowed was seemed equivalent to the offense. People often retaliated with savage attacks, some starting blood feuds –something similar may happen in our times. One biblical example of this was the boast of Lamech, Genesis 4:23-24: ‘I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance is taken for Cain, but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.’
Jesus goes beyond the limitation of ‘one for one’ to tell his disciples not to seek any vengeance, but to return evil attacks with good action. The idea of being ordered to go a mile refers to the conscription the Romans could enforce of making someone carry out a burdensome task. (One example later in the gospels is the Romans forcing Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross when he became too weak to continue on his own.)
Commentators point out, that unlike the other comparisons in this series, there is no command in the Old Testament to ‘hate your enemy’ nor is it found in the writings of the rabbis. The command to love ‘the neighbour’ could in practice have been taken as an excuse to love only family and friends. In the Dead Sea Scrolls contemporary with Christ, there is a command for the Essene community at Qumran to hate their opponents and so something like this was said in Jesus’ time and his listeners may have heard that. Hating the enemy is still seen as virtuous in our own times, with people excused for – and sometimes expected to – hate opponents or ‘public enemies’. People who express any compassion for evildoers are often charged with condoning the offenses. The love Jesus commands does not condone wrongdoing, but prays for repentance – and therefore, the welfare of evildoers. John P. Meier says that Jesus is not speaking with ‘a sentimental view that all people are brothers and sisters. With the bracing realism of the bible, Jesus affirms the category of enemy, but demands love even of enemies simply because that is the way the Father acts’. Jesus compares the way God deals with sinners to the world’s weather – one of his metaphors drawn from daily life. As Meier says, this is not because God is ‘indifferent to morality but because he loves without limit’. Jesus says that loving our family and friends is not something we can brag about, as most people do that, even those considered pretty bad people. His examples are contemporary: the ‘tax collectors’ working for Rome or those who did not have the benefit of God’s teaching, such as the pagans or ‘Gentiles’. Instead we are to be like God in not limiting our love.
Being ‘perfect as God is perfect’ has struck some as impossible, thinking of God’s exalted state as including all forms of perfection. The word translated ‘perfect’ comes from a Greek root meaning ‘completed, fulfilled,’ and has the sense of our being in process, and suggests it may take time to grow closer to the fullness of love. In the context of the command to love even enemies, ‘perfection’ would the kind of love that does not exclude anyone.
It is often a challenge to live every day as these teachings command, but that is what Jesus asks all his disciples to do. He does, of course, stand ready to ‘be with’ us to help our helplessness to overcome hatred and to starting over after failure.
In this year, Ordinary Time pauses till after Easter. Lent starts this coming Wednesday.