Lectionary commentary: seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time



READINGS

A reading from the book of Leviticus, 19:1-2. 17-18

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 103:1-4. 8. 10. 12-13. R/. v. 8

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 3:16-23

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:38-48


Jesus is still sitting on the mountain. The crowds are still there. His disciples who came to him are still there. He is still opening his mouth and he his still teaching them. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel we learn that an angel of the Lord appeared and rolled back the great stone that Joseph of Arimathea had placed at the entrance to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had seen the place and observed the burial. This is what happened next:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

Matthew 28:1-4

But the women, the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the first to be instructed by God in the voice of angel, these very women are given that great Bible blessing:

Do not be afraid!

Here is an angel whose appearance was “like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” and for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men”. Not so these two women. They are given a blessing, an explanation, and a mission:

Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.

Matthew 28:5-7

These heavenly appointed apostles ran quickly from the tomb to tell his disciples and on the way an utterly amazing thing happened, so amazing that the whole Christian world ever since have made it its most glorious of all feasts. On this first Easter Day the women were running in fear and joy and,

Behold!
Jesus came to meet them, saying,
“Greetings!
Coming to him, they clasped his feet and worshipped him.
Then Jesus said to them,
“Do not be afraid!
Go and tell my brothers they must go to Galilee,
and there they will see me”.

Matthew 28:9-10

It is the message of the women that sends the eleven disciples back to “the mountain” - that’s what it says. There Jesus gave them the command that brought the churches into being and defined Christian mission for all future ages:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:18-20

The disciples are turned into apostles, a transformation that must happen every disciple. Everyone who learns Jesus must know that God’s objective is to create proclaimers of God’s gospel.

The mission of the eleven disciples who came back to the mountain is clearly defined: to make disciples, to pronounce the gift of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to teach all who are baptised to observe all that Jesus had commanded them.

But this awesome responsibility is not given without an assurance. The women had run with fear and great joy. So must all disciples who are destined to be schooled into apostles. They, too, will surely run into the world with fear but with great joy. For there is this certainty:

Behold!
I am with you all the days until the fulfilment of the age.

Matthew 28:20

Just as Jesus is present on the mountain, sitting there on the ground, opening his mouth, and teaching, so he is always on the mountain.

That is why it is essential to live everyday with the Sermon on the Mount. It is transformative. Even the crowds who had gathered realised that what they had heard was an authoritative voice, a voice that carried weight far beyond that of their learned scholars:

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

Matthew 7:28-29

Jesus “was teaching them” the very task laid on the shoulders of all disciples as they are morphed by the Holy Spirit into apostles. It is not enough to listen to Jesus speaking on the mountain. To hear him aright is to understand that what is happening is an ordination. Those who have ears to hear will know that they are being called to go down the mountain and teach the nations. But they do not leave Jesus on the mountain. He goes with them:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The Immanuel of Matthew’s first chapter is the Risen Lord of his last chapter. As it was in the beginning …



A reading from the book of Leviticus, 19:1-2. 17-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, 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 frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am Lord”.

The word of the Lord.

Given to Israel, and intended for the whole of humanity, the eternal purpose of God revealed in a single sentence:

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

That is all we know and all we need to know. Thus is the determination of God revealed. The Lord states the non-negotiable status of humanity. For the vocation of the people of Israel is the vocation of all humanity. The people of Israel is ordained to be,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Isaiah 42:1

Through the faithful witness of Israel to the world,

I will lead the blind
in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do,
and I do not forsake them.

Isaiah 42:16

The prophet Zechariah sees a day when the living waters of the Lord will baptise the earth from east to west and west to east:

On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.

Zechariah 14:8-9

What is spoken “to all the congregation of the people of Israel” is destined to be spoken to all the nations on this earth. The vocation to be holy as God is holy is not given exclusively to one people. It was given to one people in order to be proclaimed to all peoples. But what does it mean to be ordained into the very holiness of God? What does it mean to be holy?


HOLY

The prophet Isaiah imagines a vision of the heavenly court. The Lord God is seated on the throne and the attendant seraphim, the guardians of the divine throne, break into song:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!

What is amazing about this heavenly chorus is that the holiness of God is intimately and inevitably connected with “the whole earth”. The poet Isaiah cannot envisage the Lord God separate or unconcerned, as if “the whole earth” was beneath divine attention. Both Hebrew and Greek words for holiness imply a relationship between the divine and the human. There is a sense in which you can’t have one without the other.

God appointed Moses to represent God’s authority over the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt. When victory was achieved the great leader and all the wretched slaves who had been delivered from slavery sang this song to the Lord:


I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The
Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.


Exodus 15:1-2

If we make our way through the whole song we can identify the Lord who led the people from slavery to freedom, the Lord who is to be praised and exalted:

He has become my salvation.
His right hand is glorious in power.
He overcomes enemies.
Among the gods, none is like our God:
Our God is majestic holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds.
The Lord leads his people in steadfast love,
the Lord who redeems the people.
The Lord guides his people with his strength
The Lord provides sanctuary for his people.

By no means does the song say everything about God. By no means is it possible for any song to say everything about God. Psalm 99 is a worthy attempt:

The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

The
Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!

Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the
Lord our God; worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!

Psalm 99:1-5

Notice how the psalm turns from the God who is holy, who loves justice, and righteousness, to the God immediately concerned with human affairs:

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called upon his name.
They called to the Lord, and he answered them.
In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them;
they kept his testimonies
and the statute that he gave them.
O
Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.

Exalt the Lord our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the Lord our God is holy.

Psalm 99:6-9

Notice, too, what the holy God is and what the holy God does. There is this connectedness between the Lord who is seated upon a throne, majestic in his holiness, and yet intimately concerned with humanity and its wellbeing. This is the essence of holiness. It is the godliness of God being active in the godliness of humanity. God is steadfast love but that never-ending love embraces humanity. It is poured out in saving, in divine justice, and forgiveness. The holiness of God is God’s outreach to creation. The holiness of humanity is its efforts to reflect that holiness in the business of being human. The Book of Leviticus today proclaims the connectedness of heaven and earth:

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.

So it follows that God’s people appoint a house for God to dwell amongst us: the Temple. Jesus is the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24). The Christian, as Paul tells us today, is a wonder:

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

I Corinthians 3:16-17

We name churches and shrines holy. We pray holy prayers. We name holy people. We distinguish what is holy from that which is not holy. But all of these are reflections of a deeper truth: we are holy because God is holy. We are ever in the mind and heart of God. If God worries it is because God is forever concerned with our safety. Holiness is a concern on God’s part that we be what we are created to be: an image and likeness of God. We know that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God’s holiness, goes about the world seeking to forge people into that holiness which is God. St. Paul insists that we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16).

The Holy Spirit pours out God’s holiness into the very being of humanity. Consider what the Letter to Ephesians has to say about Gentile pagan who were separated from Christ and alienated from God. I say consider these words but what is demanded is a lifelong mediation and an everlasting prayer to grasp the outreach of a God to turn humanity into God’s very own likeness, God’s very own holiness:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit … a structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:11-22

This is awesome. We, in your parish ad mine, are “a dwelling place for God”, made so by God’s Spirit of Holiness. We are a holy temple, together providing for God a local habitation and a name:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 103:1-4. 8. 10. 12-13. R/. v. 8

R/. The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Bless the
Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits. R/.

The
Lord forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. R/.

The
Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities. R/.

A
s far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. R/.

To bless the Lord is to praise God with a heart overflowing with gratitude, especially for blessings received from God’s hands. Gratitude is especially to be given when wrong-doing is forgiven and illnesses are overcome. Should the Lord save one from death then one is indeed crowned with that steadfast love that endures forever.

The very nature of God is the one whose steadfast love endures forever. From that everlasting love mercy and compassion flow. Moses taught the people of Israel to know God, the God who had delivered them from Egyptian slavery:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin …

Exodus 34:6-7

While Moses warned that sin would not tolerated by God, here in the psalm the prayer about mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and the wonder of the Lord whose steadfast love is beyond measure.



A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 3:16-23

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. Let no one deceive himself. If anyone 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 the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in 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.

The word of the Lord.

Every Christian community, every little church, no matter how battered, bewildered, and beset with threats and tribulation, is a Temple of God. In all our brokenness, God’s Spirit dwells. If any power, within or without, should destroy the Temple of God, then God will not stand idly by. Paul provides the reason why such destruction will stir God to defeat the destroyer:

For the Temple of God is holy: that is what you are.

The Presence of God in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem is now in the little communities of quarrelling, argumentative, and even obstreperous little churches in and around the city of Corinth. The Holy of Holies is your parish, says St. Paul, to use our language. “When you come together as church” (I Corinthians 11:18), remember who and what you are. No matter who founded you, whether Paul or Peter, or Uncle Tom Cobley, everything that you are belongs to God as a holy possession: you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. There is a sentence that is a warning to our times:

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:38-48

Jesus said:
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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.


“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbo
ur 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 do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, 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.

The Gospel of the Lord.

If you have sat on the mountain, if you have become what you are called to be

  • poor in spirit
  • people who mourn the pain of the world
  • people who are meek
  • people who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • who are merciful
  • who are pure of heart
  • who are peacemakers
  • who are persecuted
  • and who are reviled for standing on the side of God

then you have deep thinking to do. For you have indeed heard that it was said: Eye for eye; tooth for tooth. For so it was said that when harm had been done:

then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Exodus 21:24

Again:

If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.

Leviticus 24:20

And lest you forget:

It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Deuteronomy 19:21

The code of strict justice does not, says Jesus, govern behaviour in the world where love motivated all that must be done. In fairness it must be said that the texts from the Hebrew Bible quoted above seek to limit revenge. The so-called lex talionis, the law of retaliation, was meant to curtail the instinct of retribution.

What Jesus is demanding it that the evil deed must not be repaid by further evil. He gives three examples. The first is stranger than immediately appears. For what is emphasised is striking on the right cheek, adding insult to injury. Thus Jesus is saying that even the most personal injury must not be met with retaliation. That “But I say to you … “ leaves no room for getting even.

Worse still, if one is brought to court, sued by an enemy, and the result is a loss of one’s inner garment, then one should offer one’s cloak as well.

Long before St. Matthew wrote about Jesus, St. Paul had a word on he subject:

I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!

I Corinthians 6:5-8

Paul is clearly against Christian suing Christian. Jesus insists on an even broader rejection of retaliation for injury done. Furthermore, Paul has a sentence in today’s reading from the great apostle that will throw us into confusion:

If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him.

This is not, it seems to me, an example of the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. It is rather an assertion that God’s final judgment on humanity will not spare the evil one who seeks to destroy what God creates: a human home for divine presence.

A sentence in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion throws some light on the third example Jesus offers in the business of retaliation. It concerns Simon of Cyrene:

As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.

Matthew 27:32

The verb “to compel” is used here too. The implication is that a military or other authority that compels one to go a mile should not be resisted. Rather, one should go the extra mile.

Then there is the command to accede to anyone who comes begging or hoping to borrow: do not turn them away. Clearly there is some higher authority, some deeper consideration, that imposes such seemingly unfair demands.

That is what is revealed in a long paragraph that demands of those who sit on the mountain listening to Jesus creating a church. A Jesus church must love its enemies into love. This is the final demand in the six demands that Jesus makes (“But I say to you …”) in order that his disciples become perfect “as your heavenly Father is perfect”. To do as Jesus commands, to do as Jesus does, is to transcend the everyday practices that pass for morality in favour of God’s vision of what life between brothers and sisters must be like if what is done on earth is “as it is in heaven”.

Some clarification is to be had in a confrontation between a Pharisees (who was an expert in the Torah of God) and Jesus:

[A Pharisee, a lawyer] asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 22:35-40

Further enlightenment is to be found in a comment in the letter of James:


If you really fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

James 2:8-10


But I say to you...

First, we do well to note that the Torah, God’s Law for God’s holy people, does not actually teach that one must hate one’s enemies. There are, however, statements in the Hebrew Bible that might point to hatred of enemies as a godly virtue:

Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Psalm 139:21-22

And how about this for a piece of peaceful co-existence:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2

It is difficult to imagine your average Jews, friends and neighbours of Jesus, advocating love of Pontius Pilate or any of the Roman invaders who squeezed God’s Holy Land in taxation and who imposed a cruel and oppressive regime on God’s holy people. As far as most Jews were concerned Rome was the enemy. Admittedly one can find texts such as this:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.

Proverbs 25:21-22

The difficulty is to find any Jew or Christian who believed or believes such noble sentiments.

What Jesus believes to be peek of perfection for his followers, the very perfection of the heavenly Father, is to love enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Thast is what must be done for now. Does not God, our Father, let the sun rise on the good and bad, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust? If love is measured by the measure of those who love only those who love them, what is godly about that? Do not tax collectors and pagans live up to that kind of self interest?

There is, however, a sting in the tail. Not, perhaps, a sting, more a subtle qualification. The Greek word used for “perfect” is τελειóς, (teleios). It is a word that can mean “blameless” (as in Job 1:1) and Genesis 17:1:

When Abram was ninety- nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.

It is used in the words Jesus uses to the rich young man:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Matthew 19:21

To be perfect is to have that kind of love that God is. It is to strive to be god-like. Or to allow the wheel to come to full circle,

You shall be blameless before the Lord your God,

Deuteronomy 18:13

is to fulfil the must demanding of all commands, the command in our first reading:

Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.

However we must always remember that this demand is made by our God who is ever present in love and empowering mercy, present, that is, in the Temple we have become, and remember, too, that the God who dwells there is Our Father.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.