Mother Church celebrates Sunday, February 19, 2017 as the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A. In the entrance antiphon we pray: “O Lord, I trust in your merciful love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord who has been bountiful with me. Amen.”
God’s chosen people are reminded in the first reading from Leviticus that they should be holy because the Lord himself is holy. They should be open to one another and not show an attitude of vengeance or retaliation. This message is taken up in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus asks us to love one another, even those who hate and persecute us. In the second reading, Saint Paul tells his converts of Corinth that they are wise only because they belong to Christ. By belonging to Christ, they belong to God and nothing or no one, especially their human talents can any longer have claim over them. In the course of this Eucharist, let us pray for the grace to love everyone, even those who do not return or care for our love.
First Reading: Leviticus 19: 1-2. 17-18.
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, ‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
The first five books of the Bible are attributed to one author, Moses. They form a unit known collectively as the Pentateuch (from the Greek word for five books), or as the Torah (the Hebrew word for the Law). The first of these books is Genesis, which deals with the origin of the world, mankind and the people of Israel; the second is Exodus, which gives an account of the escape of the Jewish people from Egypt and how they wandered about in the desert for forty years; the third, from where the reading of the day is taken, is Leviticus, which gives the lists of the laws of the priests of the tribe of Levi; the fourth is Numbers, which gives a list of the tribes of Israel that left Egypt; and the fifth is Deuteronomy, the second Law laid down by Moses before the Israelites enter into the Promised Land.
The Book of Leviticus essentially covers rituals and worship, and many aspects of daily Jewish life, but all seen in relation to God. It takes its name from the fact that it was the Levitical priest (i.e. Aaron and his sons and descendants, assisted by the rest of the Levites) who administered the law. The book served as the liturgical handbook of the Levitical priesthood, and at the same time it taught the Israelites the necessity of an untainted holiness in every aspect of their lives. It is designed to show how to stay within the sphere of God (how to be holy) and what to do if one has strayed from him through sin. Unlike Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, Leviticus belongs entirely to the priestly tradition of Israel. It is really a book about the rites of Jewish liturgy; it contains laws about worship in general and rules about ceremonies to be used for offerings and consecrations and about how feasts should be celebrated.
In the passage for our meditation, the people of Israel are being asked to be holy just as the Lord is holy. The sacred writer invites them – and us -- to be open with one another and not show any attitude of vengeance. The people with whom we live must be treated with the respect, kindness and uprightness shown by God, who loves his people. If we are to show that God is our Father, then we too must be models of ‘tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness’ (Ex 34:6).
The characteristic feature of us, Christians, consists in loving our enemies following the words of Jesus Christ: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5: 48). We call on the Holy Spirit to help us to reconcile with our enemies and to love our brothers and sisters as our Father in heaven loves us. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Second Reading: First Corinthians 3: 16-23.
Brethren: Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are. Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
The first chapters of Saint Paul’s letter to the Christians of Corinth form what has been called his book of Christian wisdom. He has so far dismissed wisdom based on human speculation and invited his converts to pursue the wisdom which comes from the gift of the Holy Spirit. According to him, Christianity is not based on human wisdom but on God, the source of all wisdom. He assures his Christians that they are wise because they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God (1 Cor 3:23). Therefore, by belonging to Christ nothing and no one can any longer have claim over them.
Paul tells them about living a holy life because they are the temple of God in whom the Spirit of God dwells. The church is the temple of God, the holiest building that a Jew like Paul could imagine. It is the place where the Spirit of God dwells among his people, reveals himself to them and receives their worship in prayer and sacrifice. The temple is the community of God’s people. The divisions, jealousy and opposition Paul denounces among his converts of Corinth destroy Christian unity. He therefore warns that anyone who endangers Christian unity will himself be destroyed.
Another defective attitude the Corinthians have developed, which shows that they have not yet attained divine wisdom, is their desire to cling to one teacher over another. Some claim to be for Paul, some for Cephas and others for Apollos. This is an attitude that is also quite prevalent in our Church today, where some Christians do not hesitate to openly express approval – or disapproval – of one priest over another. Some priests even promote and support this type of behaviour in Church, an indication that both the clergy and the lay faithful still have a long way to go to attain the divine wisdom Paul is calling for. Paul clearly states that all ministers are there to serve all the faithful. The type of human factions and dissensions that have developed in the Church of Corinth come from Christians who are taking sides against one another, forgetting that Christians belong to Christ alone.
Let us pray with Saint Dionysius of Alexandria: “God the Father, origin of all that is divine, good beyond all that is good, fair beyond all that is fair, in you is calmness, peace and concord. Heal what divides us from one another and bring us back into the unity of love, bearing some likeness to your divine nature. Through the embrace of love and the bonds of godly affection, make us one in the Spirit by that peace of yours that makes all things peaceful. We ask this through the grace, mercy and tenderness of your only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Gospel: Matthew 5: 38-48
At that time, 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, ‘Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.’ “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
V/ The Gospel of the Lord.
R/ Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the early centuries of the Jewish people, the law of retaliation was recognized as ethically correct and socially and legally acceptable. This led to interminable strife, and countless crimes. The belief was that “blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who sheds it.” (Numbers 35:33). In Leviticus, we read that “Anyone who injures a neighbour shall receive the same in return, broken limb for broken limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As the injury is inflicted, so will be the injury suffered” (Lv 24: 19ff).
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives a totally opposite view with emphasis on a sense of forgiveness and absence of pride. He addresses the question of how his disciples should behave when they are faced with hatred and hostility. He revokes the law of retaliation by asking his disciples not to be provoked into taking retaliation for the wrongs done against them. Never before Jesus Christ did any prophet call for the love of one’s enemy. Jesus thus makes Christianity the only religion that requires that its followers love their enemies. This is a reform of life which was a complete surprise for his contemporaries who were subject to the law of retaliation as preached by Moses.
Jesus confirms the ancient Law that calls for the love of one’s neighbour but rejects any interpretation of the Law that permits people to hate their enemy. The Israelites understood neighbour to mean another Jew but Jesus rejects this limitation of love, extending it to one’s enemies as well. No one -- Jew and Gentile alike – is excluded form Christian love.
He says that evil cannot be won by evil and retaliation or revenge can only aggravate violence and injustice. Jesus asks that we overcome evil with goodness, enmity with love. That is why he asks us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
A Christian should therefore not have any enemies; his only enemy being sin, not the sinner. Jesus put this into practice with those who crucified him. He prayed for them and asked his Father to forgive them for they did not know what they were doing (Lk 23: 34).
Why is it important to love those who hate us and persecute us? This is proof that we are children of the heavenly Father who loves both the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. To love those who love us, Christ says, is only natural, even sinners do likewise. Love’s greatest proof is loving those who hate us, those who hurt us, those who never encourage or appreciate us. The true test of Christianity lies in loving such people.
Our Lord repeatedly calls on us to be charitable at all times. Saint James says that faith without action (charity) is dead (Js 2: 14-26). The Christian way of conduct is to do good always, even if such an attitude is seen as a weakness by some. The commandment of charity does not only apply to those who love us but to everyone without exception, including those who ill-treat us, spread false rumours against us, and actively seek to harm us.
This way of acting presupposes a deep life of prayer and sets us apart from pagans and those who do not want to live like Christ’s disciples. Assisted by grace, we will also show charity towards those who do not behave as children of God. However, even those who reject God still deserve our love because they continue to be God’s children, capable of conversion and of reaching eternal life.
We begin the Eucharist by asking for forgiveness from God and from one another. Let our prayer be sincere and true and when the temptation to hate someone comes to mind, let us say a prayer for them instead. This is perhaps easier said than done but with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will succeed. Holy Spirit, come to our assistance. Amen.