What the liturgical texts call “this joyful season” of Lent begins later this week. Once known as “Quinquagesima Sunday,” today marked the fiftieth day before Easter. This year it leaps over the 8th Sunday of the Year, so Easter will seem “early” on April 12th, if not as early as it will be next year – April 4th. We should see some flowers. In the meantime, we here in the Midwest will be mixing our ashes with some snow come Wednesday…
Lent is a period set aside for the amendment of life, and today’s readings, particularly the gospel selection from the Sermon on the Mount,
seem very apt to prompt serious reflection. Two of them focus specifically on the prohibition of retaliation and revenge. All touch on the notion of holiness of life, a particular kind of holiness. I chanced upon the following homily in the files from 2017, given in the midst of another election cycle. As the French say, ‘plus ça change, c’est la même chose’… (Quick translation: “Here we go again.”) There’s not much I would change. Or need to…
The words of scripture today [Lv 19:1-2,17-18, 1 Cor 3:16-23, Matthew 5:38-48] present us with a helpful corrective to much of the talk that has crowded the airwaves during the last several weeks – actually several months. If you are like me, you are now pretty tired of hate-filled speech, recriminations, name-calling, and reciprocal accusations. The country seems to have entered an era in which civility, much less truth-telling, has become outmoded. So if we are to believe that the words of scripture are meant for us today as always, we might well pay attention. Otherwise, why are we listening to them at all?
All three readings take up the challenge of dealing with our brothers and sisters respectfully and honestly. The first reading from the Book
of Leviticus provides Jesus with the greatest of all the commandments. And the gospel takes us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, the core of Jesus’ teaching about how we are to treat one another. No exceptions.
The Leviticus reading states boldly and shockingly the seemingly impossible demand, “Be holy, as I am holy.” How can anyone be holy the way God is? Jesus accurately cites this passage when he says “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Scared yet? If we pay attention to the way English tends to mess up the language of the Bible, it gets clearer and maybe a little less scary.
The Hebrews knew very well that God’s holiness was unique – “qadosh,” they called it. That’s the word we use at the Sanctus of the Mass, a usage that goes back to the Book of Isaiah, when the Seraphim cry out in the temple, “Holy! Holy! Holy! The Lord God of Hosts!” Isaiah was terrified. For “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” [Ps. 113, 3-5]. No one could expect even to look on the majesty of God and live through the experience. But like Moses before him and many people later, Isaiah is protected. He survives and his life is completely changed.
God’s own holiness is incommunicable, but it surrounds and sanctifies persons and places close to God. Human holiness is something else. The Hebrews called it “hasad,” meaning to show oneself kind or merciful, the way God is kind and merciful. It means being a truly godly person, someone in whom goodness and mercy shine forth as they do in God. This is what Jesus is referring to when he commands us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word used in the gospels actually means “fully mature, complete, thorough.” Like God. Unstinting in kindness, goodness, and mercy.
Jesus spells it out in what may seem almost impossible terms – offer no resistance to injury, turn your face when you are struck, give up your stuff when it is required, be generous, merciful, and just. In a word, love one another. I recently saw an account of a young man who was held up on the street by a hoodlum who demanded money. He gave it up and then added to it. He next asked the robber why he was robbing people and the man said he was hungry. So the young man took him to a café, fed him, and refused to take back the money when it was returned to him. And it changed the robber’s life. This really happened. They actually became friends.
St. Paul explains why we find these kinds of commands and even their fulfillment baffling and silly and in doing so, also gives us a pretty good way of handling current events:
“God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” [1 Cor 3:17-20].
So pay it forward, as the kids say. Let’s be like God the way God wants us to be. The way Jesus showed us.