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FEBRUARY 20, 2011: SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
I Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

One of the most important lines in Scripture is part of today’s first reading. “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, Yahweh, your God am holy.”

Matthew’s Jesus parallels that line with this Sermon on the Mount command, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures teach the same basic lesson: followers of God are expected to imitate God. Certainly not an easy endeavor, especially since our Leviticus author labels God “holy.” Scholars agree the best way to translate the original Hebrew for holy is “other.” God is totally different from you and me; the one entity in our universe who is completely other than we are. That means that, just as Yahweh stands in contrast to all other creation, so we’re to stand in contrast to all around us.

The writer of Leviticus gives an example of the otherness Yahweh expects of us. “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart ….take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Anyone consistently acting in this manner would certainly be judged different, if not crazy.

The problem is that God’s otherness is an evolving concept. Jesus demands his followers discover even more holiness in Yahweh than the authors of the Torah surfaced. When he says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. ... YOU shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” he’s quoting the Mosaic Law: the 613 regulations all biblical Jews are expected to obey. Jesus expects his disciples to see dimensions in God’s personality that his Jewish ancestors hadn’t noticed.

“Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other as well... Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.... If you only love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”

His reason for this unique behavior again goes back to God. “. . . 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.” Our actions should never be dictated by the actions of others. That’s not how God operates.

Paul takes this insight one step further. When he writes, the Jerusalem temple is still standing. The Roman army wouldn’t destroy it until 70 CE - at least ten years after the Apostle’s death. .Jews could still enter those sacred precincts and celebrate Yahweh’s very special presence in the Holy of Holies. But since Paul evangelized mostly Gentiles - non-Jews - the majority of those who read his letters couldn’t go to Jerusalem and worship Yahweh in that holy place, even if they wanted to.

Paul’s answer to their exclusion has become classic Christian theology, he tells the Corinthians, “You are the temple of Cod; . . . the Spirit of Cod dwells in you .... the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

Those who commit themselves to imitating God’s holiness not only become other, they also become the presence of God in our midst. No need to go to a special, holy place to experience God among us. God is in our very selves.

Sirach never went that far. Though he encouraged his readers to share God’s holiness, he still believed God’s followers needed a temple. Of course, probably many of us have yet to go that far. If we did, and followed our Church’s rubrics, we not only would have to genuflect in front of tabernacles, we’d also have to genuflect in front of one another.