Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Response: Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48.

An excerpt from the Book of Leviticus was selected for the first reading because the reading contains a law that will be quoted in today’s gospel. This document is called Leviticus because it was a handbook for the Levitical priesthood claiming descent from the first high priest Aaron, who was of the tribe of Levi. He was also a brother of Moses. Leviticus is the third of the five great scrolls forming the Torah. The others are Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. All are attributed to Moses as author. The influence of Moses, who lived in the 13th century B.C., should not be excluded; but all five scrolls are the end result of centuries of development. In its present form, Leviticus (and the rest of the Torah scrolls) is thought to have been compiled and made public after the end of the Israelite exile in Babylon – so after 540-538 B.C. The excerpt that forms today’s first reading is part of a section scholars call “Various Rules of Conduct,” or “Miscellania.”

These miscellaneous rules were serious matters to Israel, but some seem strange to us. Examples: “Do not mate your cattle to another kind.” (No beefalo!) “You are not to tattoo yourselves.” (No tattoo parlors!) “You are not to wear a garment made of two kinds of fabric.” (This would exclude much of the clothing available today.)

But these obscure laws are not our concern here. The first reading begins with the Levitical introduction to the rules of conduct, giving the reason for the rules. The Lord addresses Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them, ‘Be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.’”

Omitting the intervening verses, our reading gets to the heart of the matter for today’s liturgy. Do not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Sister is not in the biblical text, but is a change made by a translator. The law continues, “but you shall reason with your neighbor (fellow Israelite) lest you bear sin because of him.” Sin would be ignoring correction when one has responsibility to do so. The next law: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your own people,” (again a fellow Israelite). The Lord himself, in Deuteronomy 32:35, claims the right to revenge (see also Romans 12:19; and Genesis 4:15, 24). Finally, our reading comes to the law quoted by Jesus in today’s gospel reading: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Is this beyond human possibility? Jesus made this law relatively easy by giving us a form of the ancient Golden Rule, “As you wish that people do to you, so do to them” (Luke 6:31; Matthew 7:12).

Psalm 103 is a psalm of thanksgiving emphasizing the kindness and mercy of the Lord God. The psalmist first blesses (praises) the Lord, then lists his acts of kindness and mercy. The Lord pardons sins, heals sickness and rescues lives from destruction. He is slow to anger and does not deal with us according to what our sins have deserved. In fact, he removes our transgressions so far from us as is the east distant from the west. The Lord is a compassionate father to us.

In the context of our second reading, Paul applies to the Christian community at Corinth the metaphor of a building. He himself as architect put down the foundation, while other contractors built on his foundation. He notes that Jesus Christ is the foundation. All other builders have to build according to that foundation. Apparently, some builders were not reliable. He warns them about the fire of the last day. From a building, he moves on to the metaphor of a temple — a building dedicated to God. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” We are accustomed to being catechetically instructed that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, as in 1 Cor. 6:19. Here, Paul extends the temple metaphor to the whole community.

The gospel reading continues from last Sunday, Matthew’s series of theses and antitheses. They are presented like this: Jesus states a thesis, “You have heard that it was said,” then a quote from Scripture or tradition. This is followed by his authoritative proclamation, “But I say to you . . . .” Today, we have the two final theses and antithesis in the Sermon on the Mountain. The first: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This is a quote from Exodus 21:24, where it is expanded to “hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (See also Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21). This is the Lex Talionis (Law of Retaliation). Whatever harm one inflicts on another, the one harmed may legally inflict the same harm on his attacker. Jesus abolishes the Law of Retaliation. He asks what seems humanly impossible. “But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn also the other cheek to him . . . .” This might work on a personal level, or would it only encourage a bully to do worse? Is this more than passive resistance, such as that of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi’s movement of resistance to British rule?

The final thesis and its antithesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The law of love of neighbor refer to Leviticus 19:18 explained above in comments on the first reading. Jesus vastly expands the objects of our love. “But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” The motivation? “. . . that you may be children of your heavenly Father who makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” We do find an expansion of love of neighbor beyond fellow Israelites in Leviticus 19:34: “If a stranger lives in your land . . . love him as yourself.” Matthew attributes the second part to Jesus’ antithesis, “and hate your enemy,” which is nowhere in the Old Testament. It may have entered Matthew’s mind from acquaintance with Jewish literature seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the members of that sect are advised that “they may hate all the sons of darkness.” Jesus or Matthew indulge in a bit of “shaming.” Loving only those who love us is done even by the hated tax collectors. Reaching out only to one’s own is done even by pagans. Surely Christians can do better.

The goal of this expansion of love? “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”