The readings for the Seventh Week continue to explore Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
The First Reading, from Leviticus 19, recalls that fact that ancient Israel was called to be a holy people because God dwelled among them.
The Book of Exodus ends with the completion and dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness of Sinai. God’s presence inhabits the Tabernacle, in the center of the Israelite camp. From one perspective, the Book of Leviticus (most folks’ least favorite book of the Bible, although the one on which I wrote my dissertation) can be understood as a collection of laws to teach Israel how to live in the holy presence of their God.
If the ancient people of Israel were called to be holy because God’s sanctuary was in their midst, the Second Reading from 1 Cor 3 stresses that Christians must be holy because they are themselves God’s sanctuary!
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
In the Gospel (Matt 5:38-48), Jesus stresses that following the Old Testament standards of justice to the letter is still not sufficient to reach God’s perfection. The Law of Moses had limited actions of revenge: one could inflict in retribution no more than the injury unjustly received (“an eye for an eye ...”). This standard of justice was an advance over disproportionate infliction of revenge in tribal society, but Jesus insists that it falls short of divine perfection.
The Mosaic Law mandated love for the “neighbor”—but the “neighbor” (re’ah) in Leviticus meant an kinsman, a fellow Israelite. Jesus teaching enlarges the scope of the neighbor to include all fellow human beings, even those considered enemies. In both parts of today’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to return love for hate, good for evil. The reading concludes with an echo of Lev 19:2 and Deut 18:13: “So be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
My understanding of this exhortation to perfection has changed considerably over the years, as I moved from being an ardent Calvinist to entering the Catholic Church.
As a Calvinist pastor, I regarded Jesus’ exhortation to perfection as the setting of an absurdly high moral bar. Jesus did not intend for us to actually be perfect, which was impossible—rather, he was setting an unattainable moral standard that would cause us to despair of ever being saved through our behavior. Then, in despair and desparation, we would seek salvation in Christ by faith alone, rather than works. This was the “First Use of the Law” in Calvinist theology. By "exhibiting the righteousness of God, — in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God, — [the Law] admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.6). So the admonition to perfection only served to show us how sinful we are, so we give up trying to be perfect and seek salvation only by faith.
I view this verse quite differently today. I now believe that Jesus meant the plain sense of what he said. It is really necessary for us to strive for perfection, and it is possible by God’s grace given to us through the faithful reception of the sacraments. Through the sacraments, God gives us his own power, which enables us to do what we could not otherwise accomplish.
Jesus intends that his disciples should actually become what Israel was called to be: a holy and perfect people. The standard of perfection is seriously meant, despite the fact that it is not maintained for long in this life. When we fail, the responsorial psalm reminds us, “The Lord is kind and merciful. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us ....”
(Visit the traditional site of this Sermon, the Mount of Beatitudes, this May by clicking here. Early registration discounts apply till the end of February.)