Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
The Book of Leviticus is the fourth book of the Torah (Pentateuch). It is called Leviticus because it served as the liturgical handbook of the Levitical priesthood. Aaron, the first high priest, was of the tribe of Levi, thus Leviticus. Like the other books of the Torah — Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — there was not one author but the work of many authors, some perhaps centuries apart. All five books of the Torah are attributed to Moses. The best we can say about that today is this, that the influence of Moses (13th century B.C.) on some content of the Torah is not to be excluded. The material (laws, rituals, feasts) in Leviticus developed over many centuries. In its present literary form Leviticus (and the whole Torah) is thought to have been compiled or made public after the exile, so after 538 B.C. The part that is offered as today’s first reading can be put under that title, “Various Rules of Conduct.” A better headline, “Miscellanea.” Interesting for us might be these rules: “You shall not wear a garment made of two kinds of fabric,” (cotton and polyester?); “You shall not tattoo any kinds of marks on your body.”
Among the rules of conduct we find this one in today’s first reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A neighbor was originally meant as a fellow-Israelite, since the command of love of neighbor is preceded by this introduction, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.” Also, the rules (commands) of conduct were directed to Israelites. This is clear from the opening command supposedly given by God to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them . . . .” The brother and sister mentioned are also fellow-Israelites, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” There is also a notice about fraternal correction, “Though you may have to correct your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.” The author is aware the fraternal correction is seldom appreciated. Two reasons are given for practicing these rules of conduct, “I am the Lord,” which serves as a kind of Amen, and “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God am holy.” Matthew’s form of this statement: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The major theme of the Responsorial Psalm 103 is stated in the people’s response, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” How the Lord express his kindness and mercy? The Psalmist answers, “He pardons sins, heals sickness, crowns us with compassion. He is slow to anger, does not deal with us as we deserve because of our sins, nor does he repay us for our crimes.” There is much repetition of these thoughts in the Psalm, but that is the nature of Hebrew poetry — to repeat the content of a thought but in different words the second time. There is much use of synonyms.
The second reading continues the series of excerpts from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In this letter of corrections for an unruly and troubled Christian community he founded, Paul deals with class divisions, poor vs. rich, educated vs. uneducated, free vs. slaves, lawsuits, sexual scandal, abuses of the Eucharist, jealousy over ministries, lawsuits of Christian against Christian. What does he recommend for the correction of all these ills? He reminds them that they as a Christian community are a temple of God. “God himself will destroy the person who destroys the temple of God.” Even though he speaks of the individual Christian as God’s temple in another context, I Cor 5:19, in the present context of today’s reading the temple of God is the whole Christian community.
In last week’s Sunday gospel, Matthew began listing a series of theses and antitheses attributed to Jesus. They begin like this, “You have heard that it was said . . . ,” followed by “but I say to you.” That series continues in today’s gospel reading. The first one: “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, but found also in various expansions in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. It is the law of Lex Talionis, (Law of retaliation). Whatever harm one inflicts on another, the one harmed can by law afflict the same harm on his attacker. Jesus abolishes the lex talionis, “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.’” One must ask, How many Christians live by Jesus’ interpretation? This rejection of the lex talionis is a basis of Ghandi’s passive resistance adopted also by Martin Luther King. Matthew continues with another illustration of impossible? Christianity. ”If someone sues you for your shirt, give him your coat too.” Only a Saint can live by the Sermon on the Mount.
The final thesis and its antithesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The command to love of neighbor is found in Lev. 19:18 and is part of today’s first reading. Again a very hard to understand and to do Jesus’ expansion of this commandment, “But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” Difficult as this seems, the motivation Jesus gives is reasonable, “that you may be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on the bad and on the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Then Jesus asks a question, “What reward will you get, if you love only those who love you?” A bit of shaming was added, “Even tax collectors do that much,” and tax collectors had a very bad reputation among Palestinian Jews in the time of Jesus. More shaming: “If you greet only your brothers, nothing unusual about that. Even heathens do it!” A clincher closes this series of theses and antitheses, “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The original command to love of neighbor in Leviticus 19:18 referred to fellow Israelites or fellow-Jews. Jesus initiates a major expansion. Love of neighbor extends to all — even to one’s enemies. It begins with the Golden Rule, also a part of the Sermon on the Mountain, “Whatever you wish that others do to you, so do to them” (Matthew 7:12).