SMALL STEPS TOWARD AN UNREACHABLE DESTINATION
‘Lord, I am not worthy’—we repeat before receiving communion, aware that the union with Christ in the Eucharist involves the sharing of his chosen lifestyle. For this we say with all sincerity: ‘I am not worthy,’ that is, I know I can’t become bread broken, bloodshed without reserve like you, for the brethren. I know that I will not have the strength to let myself ‘be consumed’ by them. ‘I just come to beg your Spirit.’
The observance of the precepts of the Old Testament was difficult but not impossible. The goal indicated by the Torah was beyond human reach. With justifiable pride, the psalmist could declare: “For I have been faithful to the Lord’s way and have not departed from my God.” (Ps 18:22-23); Zechariah and Elizabeth “blamelessly observed all the laws and ordinances of the Lord” (Lk 1:6); Ananias was “a devout man of the law” (Acts 22:12).
Unlike Jewish morality, the Christian proposes an unattainable goal: the perfection of the Father in heaven (Mt 5:48). On the road to life, the accurate and detailed signpost of the Torah, with its well-defined commandments, remains behind. It opens the endless horizon of the perfection of the Father, and the way toward him is to be invented. Every moment the human heart is guided by the promptings of the Spirit, which suggests how to respond to the needs of the brother.
Jesus proceeds with haste (Lk 9:51), while the steps of the disciple cannot be small and uncertain. “We are still in exile, away from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6, 9), but predestined to be conformed to his image (Rom 8:29), to become an expression of his love that knows no boundaries of race and religion and is offered to friends and enemies alike.
“Lord, I repeat that I cannot make it to follow you.
However, together with you, I can always take another step.”
First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
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.”
“Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (v. 2). With this invitation from God to his people, the reading begins. In common parlance, a saint means anyone who has led an exemplary life, made it to heaven and, if invoked with faith, may grant graces and miracles. The true meaning of this term is broader: it indicates that which is separated and consecrated to God. The temples were holy because they were different, cut off from the world, and reserved for the divinity. To cross the threshold of a sanctuary was to enter the world of God. For this, it was necessary to undergo numerous and complicated purification rites.
The sacred objects were holy and could not be put to other uses. Those who lived authentically, who rose above the mundane, were holy. The holiest was God, absolutely different from everything that exists.
What then did the Lord claim when he ordered his people to be holy? Did he want them to live apart from other people? Israel has understood the command of God in this way and thought that it was perhaps her duty to avoid every contact with those who may have led her to idolatry. To maintain this ‘holiness,’ Israel has dramatically multiplied prohibitions: the prohibition on entering the houses of strangers, eating with them, or even just shaking the hand of a heathen.
Since this is a typical mentality, we remain surprised when we see that, in the book of Leviticus, there is a text—and this is read today—in which holiness is understood in a completely different way. It is understood neither as physical separation from people nor the observance of ritual prescriptions. To be holy, it is enough to lead a different life; a life that is expressed through the following values: honor your father and mother, observe the Sabbath, do not hate your brother, refrain from resentment and revenge and ‘love’ your neighbor as oneself (vv. 3,17-18).
This latter clause, together with the famous recommendation of the Book of Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Prov 25:21), is the high point of Old Testament moral teaching. However, there is a limit to it: the love asked for is not universal; the rabbinic interpretation, in fact, restricted it to the people of Israel.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23
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 anyone 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, and again: The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are in 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.
There were disagreements; divisions arose, there were jealousies, quarrels and fanaticism in Corinth. Understandable and excusable behavior between ‘children,’ among infants in the faith (1 Cor 3:1-2), but inconceivable among mature Christians, among ‘perfect people.’ To denounce the gravity of the situation, Paul uses the image of the temple of God (vv. 16-17).
The community is like a shrine carved from the secular world. It is the Spirit who keeps it together and firm. The divisions that threaten to disrupt and topple the whole construct introduce an opposite and devastating principle. The Lord will treat those who are guilty of a similar disaster with extreme severity: “God—Paul assures—will destroy him” (v. 17). The traditional image of the final judgment was used in rabbinic language, not to describe what would eventually happen but to emphasize the extreme gravity of the consequence.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 18-23), the motif of the contrast between the ‘wisdom of God and that of people’ is resumed. The disagreements stem from the fact that the community members follow the ‘wisdom of the world,’ as opposed to that of God.
In his letter, Paul has already said that “the gospel is madness in the eyes of people” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 21, 23). Today he affirms that human wisdom is foolishness to God (v. 19).
The apostle does not intend to devalue or despise the efforts and ability of human reason. He warns against the delusions of omnipotence and foolish pretensions of those convinced that everything can be reduced to what is rational and that we can do without the God of light. This thought introduces new and challenging meaning in today’s Gospel that Jesus will give to some Old Testament’s interpretations that offer moral choices whose validity is guaranteed by God, not by ‘the wisdom of this world.’
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
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.”
We listened to last Sunday’s interpretation of Jesus about four texts of the Torah of Israel. Today, it presents what is related to the other two. The first concerns the new way to get justice. We all agree that evil must be resisted and contained. But how? In an archaic society where there was no state power capable of maintaining order, people quickly resorted to revenge, retaliation without limit. Those who did wrong, once discovered, were subjected to extreme punishment, severe, cruel, and public to deter others from doing similar things. Retaliation served as a deterrent, but it was brutal justice.
Cain‘s descendant, Lamech, protected himself by instilling terror: “I killed a man for wounding me and a boy for striking me. If Cain will be avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24). It is to put a stop to such excesses that the Torah had established “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth“ (Ex 21:23-25). This is perhaps the most misrepresented law of legal history. It is cited, for example, when a snub is returned with a snub. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is equivalent, in such cases, to refusing compassion or pardon to the guilty. In reality, the arrangement had a completely different meaning: exemplary punishments and reprisals were forbidden. Payment was required for the fault, not for all the evil in the world.
Properly understood, it remains valid today. If practiced, it guarantees fairness in judgments. Jesus does not consider this as having lapsed. He aims to go beyond this strict justice and calls for the problem to be addressed another way (vv. 38-42). The rabbis of his time taught: ‘Be killed, but do not kill,’ but added immediately: but if someone attacks you and wants to take your life, do not think, do not say to yourself: maybe I will have blood on my hands; kill him first before he kills you! This interpretation of the rabbis did not raise any objection. It conformed to human logic and also had justification in the Torah.
Now here is the surprise. Jesus does not accept it, and he says to his disciples: “You do not have to resist evil!” Rather than doing violence to your brother, you must be willing to suffer injustice (Mt 5:39). We are faced with unambiguous words, and to avoid any misunderstanding, he adds four examples taken from people’s everyday life.
The first relates to physical violence: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek”… (v. 41). If you are attacked, and the assailant is not left-handed, you collect it on the left cheek. Jesus speaks of the right because the violence suffered is greater: It is about the slap, an extremely serious offense, punishable by a fine of more than a month’s salary in Israel. Jesus does not recommend to the disciple to make a milder damage claim. He demands a radically new behavior: ‘You also offer the other cheek.’
‘Good, yes, but not stupid!’ No one will say this. Of course, the words of Jesus must not be taken literally (this would be churlish). When he was slapped, he did not present the other cheek but complained (Jn 18:23). What he requires of the disciples is the inner disposition to accept injustice, to bear humiliation rather than react by harming a brother. The only way to break the cycle of evil is to forgive. If we respond to violence with more violence, it does not eliminate the first injustice, but it does add another. This cycle can only be broken with a gesture taken from a new paradigm: forgiveness. All the rest is old, something already seen, repeated without ceasing since the beginning of humanity.
The second example refers to economic injustice (v. 40). In Israel, men and women wore two garments: a tunic with long sleeves or short sleeves over the naked body and a wide cloak (cape). The cloak was wrapped around the body for warmth on cold days and taken off when doing menial work. For the poor, it also served as a blanket at night. Because of this, the Torah stated that it could not be seized (Ex 22:25-26).
Jesus proffers an extreme case of injustice: a disciple is brought to court because he is asked to hand over his tunic. His clothing was his only possession. What should be done? Nothing, apart from showing total and unconditional refusal to enter into litigation or dispute. So, he gives not only his tunic but also his cloak, the last garment he has. He is willing to stay naked, like his Master on the cross.
The third example is the abuse of power (v. 41). It often happened that the Roman soldiers or some local squire bulldozed the poor peasant settlements and forced them to act as guides or navies. We have an example in the passion narrative: Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus (Mt 27:31).
The zealots, that is, the revolutionaries of the time, suggested rebellion and violence to oppose such extortion. Epictetus urged caution: ‘If a soldier confiscates your ass, do not resist and do not complain, or you will be beaten and eventually you will need to deliver the animal.’ Jesus does not make any consideration of this kind. He does not call for caution. He simply says to his disciples: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go two.” It is not a rule of wisdom. It does not suggest a strategy to convert the aggressor. It does not even guarantee that such behavior will yield positive results in the short term. He asks the disciple not to indulge in calculated behavior, keep the heart free from resentment, and refrain from any response not dictated by love.
The fourth case is that of a troublesome person who comes to ask for a loan (but it can also be for accommodation, an apartment to rent, a job, a favor, or discount) perhaps as it often happens, without a minimum of discretion. Jesus tells the disciple: "Give when asked and do not turn your back on anyone who wants to borrow from you" (v. 42). Do not pretend not to understand, do not make excuses, do not invent non-existent difficulties, do not try to unload the problem on others. If you can do something, just do it.
In the last (sixth) example, Jesus refers to a twofold commandment: “Love your neighbor but hate your enemy” (vv. 43-48). The first is found in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18), but the latter is not. Jesus probably does not refer to a specific text of the Torah, but the mentality created in Israel from some biblical texts. Holy wars are at times spoken of in sacred Scriptures (Deut 7:2; 20:16), feelings of vengeance appear (Ps 137:7-9), attachment to the Lord is manifested, but in archaic language: “Do you not hate, perhaps, your enemies, O Lord? I hate them with implacable hatred” (Ps 139:12-22). Expression of this hatred is the invitation the Essenes of Qumran extend to their followers: “Love all the children of light, but hate all the children of darkness, each according to his fault, in the vengeance of God.”
It is good to remember that other texts in the Bible caution against repaying evil (Pro 24:29). It is recommended to love your enemy. “When you see the donkey of a man who hates you falling under its load, do not pass by but help him” (Ex 23:5). Appealing to them, some rabbis argued that the commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) had to be extended to the enemy. Still, the common opinion restricted it to members of the Jewish people.
In this religious context, the dual commandment of Jesus sounds paradoxical: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is the pinnacle of Christian ethics. It is a requirement of gratuitous and unconditional love that does not expect any return and that, like God, reaches even those who do evil. Some sages of antiquity have proposed high moral standards: ‘Behave in such a way as to turn your enemies into friends’ (Diogenes). ‘It is proper to man to also love those who persecute him’ (Marcus Aurelius), but the imperative ‘Love your enemies’ is an invention of Jesus.
The second command—to pray—suggests a way of loving ‘those who persecute us,’ those who make life impossible for us: prayer. It rises towards the sky, joined to the Lord, purifies the mind and heart of thoughts and feelings dictated by the logic of this world, and makes us see evil with the eyes of God, who has no enemies.
Jesus invites us to show ourselves as his children. He asks the disciples to let the character of our heavenly Father who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust shine in their behavior. What distinguishes the good from the violence carried out in the name of God by the wicked towards those who oppose them is the curse.
Two examples (vv. 46-47) confront the usual behavior of people who have assimilated the thoughts, feelings, and deeds of the Father who is in heaven. The characteristic of the ‘children of God’ is the love offered to those who do not deserve it and the greetings addressed to those who behave as enemies. The greeting formula was: ‘Shalom,’ a tiding of peace. The disciple wholeheartedly wishes good even on those who hate them. They forget the wrong done and commit themselves to make this possible.
The conclusion points to the unattainable goal: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). The perfection of the Jew was the exact observance of the precepts of the Torah. For the Christian, it is love as boundless as that of the Father. Perfection lies in those who lack nothing, who have integrity, whose heart is not divided between God and the idols. The openness to give everything, not keeping anything for self, to place themselves totally at the service of people—including enemies—puts them in the footsteps of Christ. It leads to the perfection of the Father, who gives his all and does not exclude anyone from his love.
READ: Yahweh invites people to share in his holiness. Once we do so, we become the temple of God, where His Spirit dwells. Jesus explains how being holy and God’s temple demands certain behavioral and relational imperatives.
REFECT: Being God’s temple, we are invited to practice everyday holiness. But doing so goes against the wisdom of the world and would invite the world’s rejection. You might have to walk a lonely path. Are you ready to walk the narrow way?
PRAY: Let us strive for perfection in our lives. Mediocrity is not an option for God’s children and chosen ones. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make my heart your home.
ACT: Try to overcome mediocrity and complacency in our work and lives. Let us live up to our dignity as God’s sons and daughters.