FEBRUARY 19TH, 2017: SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The LORD said to Moses,
"Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.
"You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD."
Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
Let no one deceive himself.
If any one 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,
for it is written:
God catches the wise in their own ruses,
The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are vain.
So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,
Paul or Apollos or Cephas,
or the world or life or death,
or the present or the future:
all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
"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,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Just what do our sacred authors mean when they refer to someone as being “holy?” They certainly aren’t employing a Merriam-Webster definition of the term. In their minds it normally has nothing to do with being “revered or worthy of devotion.” A holy person or object is simply “other:” there isn’t anyone or anything quite like it. That, for instance, is the main reason Jews were forbidden to make images of Yahweh. Any picture, bas-relief, or statue of such a completely holy individual would be limiting his/her otherness, something Yahweh’s followers were expected to respect.
That’s why the Leviticus author must have deeply disturbed his readers when he not only reminds them that Yahweh’s holy, but, through Moses, also tells them to imitate that holiness. They’re to accomplish this not by dressing different from everyone else, but by living lives that are other from people around them, lives based on a unique value system. Against common wisdom and practice, they’re to “take no revenge, cherish no grudges,” and, unbelievably, “love their neighbors as themselves.”
Matthew’s Jesus simply points out a few implications of such holiness in today’s gospel pericope. His followers are not only expected to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes them, they’re even required to “offer no resistance to one who is evil.” He consistently wants them to show “hesed” to everyone.
Biblical hesed refers to what an individual does for someone which goes beyond what he or she has a right to expect. It’s a way of exercising freedom in situations in which one’s freedom has been taken away. For instance, though someone might have a right to “go to law with you over your tunic,” handing over your cloak to that person is a totally free act. In the same way, going two miles instead of one mile for someone forcing you to do so, is also a free action. There’s “no charge” for that second mile.
As a good Jew, Matthew’s Jesus is convinced that one way we demonstrate our holiness is by freely doing things which we have no responsibility or obligation to do. A significant part of our otherness is that we’re free even in situations in which others have surrendered their freedom. Just as our “perfect” God freely deals with people, so do we. Those who want to be like God are expected to act like God.
It’s significant to recall that even though main-stream Jews had huge difficulties with the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE, Christian Jews didn’t seem to take its demise on the same level. We have to thank Paul for their reaction.
Though the Apostle was martyred about 10 years before the Roman army leveled Jerusalem, the theology he develops in today’s I Corinthians passage certainly provided them with a unique perspective from which to view that national and religious disaster. No longer was the Jerusalem temple the only place where Jesus’ Jewish disciples could encounter God. “Do you not know,” Paul asks his Corinthian readers, “that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Then he reminds them of the obvious: “The temple of God, which you are, is holy.”
If acting like everyone else is the norm of wisdom, it’s no wonder, Paul argues, that people judge other Christs to be fools.
We know from movies like Jeremiah Johnson that many Native American tribes gave their mentally ill members a free pass, interpreting their unconventional actions as signs they were close to their gods, who they logically reasoned would act differently from themselves.
I wonder how many of our friends and relatives are just as generous in judging our holy actions?