Scripture Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; First Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48
When preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation as a seventh-grader in a Catholic school many moons ago, we adolescents were reminded by the nuns teaching that we were temples of God and would become soldiers of Christ by receiving Confirmation. At the time we kind of giggled about the idea, the Vietnam War at its height, and we were grateful we could be spiritual soldiers and not government ones.
The phrase “temple of God” comes from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Church at Corinth, proclaimed as the first lesson for Mass this Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. The phrase underscores the sacredness of every human life. This of course implies that we do not exist simply by chance, but according to the will of God who loved us into existence. Yes, we are the outcome of a biological act, but also we are children of God and part of God’s handiwork.
From that follows the fact that throughout our lives we are living in God’s presence and our actions are meant to be acts of worship of God. This becomes the process to sanctity, which can be defined as drawing nearer to God. Put in terms of this Sunday’s Gospel, we heed the call to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
The perfection of holiness we are being called to is not merely a ritual or legal attitude, but a moral and religious disposition by which we must be “other,” the technical definition of holiness, and thereby share in God’s “otherness” or holiness. Expressed another way, those who belong to God must be separated from the world of vice and sin and be dedicated to God above everything else. We are called to imitate God’s ways and strive for that kind of perfection
God’s grace inspires us and we are being drawn to God. The way in which we are to walk, then, is under the new law, the law of love. Selfless love is to be the driving force of all we say and do. The old law of “Talion” found in the Hebrew Book of Exodus and heard in the first lesson of Mass this Sunday, was to avoid extreme revenge and not to exceed “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
The principle of “lex talionis” was embodied in Old Testament times by the law that criminals should receive as punishment precisely those injuries and damages that they had inflicted on their victims. From a Christian perspective, even the “restriction” of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is to be superseded by the supreme law of love of God and neighbor.
Jesus preached a new law whereby justice is infinite and evil is not conquered by causing more harm, but by banishing evil entirely from our lives through love, thereby diminishing evil’s hold on us. In order to be victorious in God’s sights, the follower of Jesus must have a lively hold on his or her interior life, what the ancient philosophers referred to as: know thyself. This means being clear about which law guides our thoughts, words and deeds. Either it is God’s law or it is something else.
Unconditional love is to be the law by which the Christian lives. It was such a love that led Jesus to the Cross, demonstrating once and for all that love triumphs over sin and death. Only by love can victory in God be achieved, coupled with humility and self-emptying, in imitation of Christ. This love put into action, what the Russian writer Dostoyevsky called, “a harsh and dreadful love.” It will cost us “nothing less than everything,” as the poet T.S. Eliot expressed.
If our daily actions are driven by God’s law of love, then we will be recognized by God as children of God. Along this path we are to walk, freely and joyfully, because God has taken hold of our lives through the Holy Spirit always working within us.
Jesus cuts across all limitations or hindrances to love and forgiveness. Elsewhere in the Gospel texts the Lord describes it as “seventy-time seven times” that we must forgive one another. This means always forgiving whoever offends us. As it might be expressed today, creed, race, color, language or culture should not be a barrier to love. There are no categories or exceptions to God’s law of love.
Even one’s enemies, Jesus says, should be loved. We are to do good and pray for enemies. The mention of prayer is not a way of downplaying the necessity of showing love for enemies, but prayer expresses how sincere and deep our love should be, a love expressed in and before God. Breaking through the usual barriers and limits that we humans tend to set, Jesus places before us the limitless graciousness of God. Jesus offers the example, motive and grace for our love for all.
Still in the cusp of a new year, at least by my reckoning, we also enter upon the renewal of that new and everlasting covenant, which encompasses the fullness of the Gospel of our Lord, and whose basic command is that of love and forgiveness. Therefore, we are called in our celebration of every Holy Eucharist to respond in a spirit of repentance. In fact that is how every Catholic Mass begins. We are called as well to a renewed commitment to love, and the acceptance of that wisdom which many today regard as sheer foolishness. In an expression from Saint Paul, let us be fools for Christ! (see First Corinthians 4:10)