Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Loving Your Enemies: The 7th Sunday in OT


This Sunday’s Readings include some of the best known—and hardest to practice—passages from the Gospel, including Jesus famous command to “turn the other cheek.”  Biblical scholarship can only go so far in elucidating some of Jesus’ challenging commands; beyond that, we need the saints. 

1.  Our Readings start off showing the continuity between Jesus’ teachings and the Old Testament, quoting a section from Leviticus (19:1-2, 17-18):

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

The Book of Leviticus is the heart of the Pentateuch from the point of view of literary structure.  It is typically the first book
of the Bible used in teaching Hebrew to Jewish boys, and its system of cleanliness and holiness is the basis for the religious lifestyle of observant Jews to the modern day.  Although much of the legislation of the book is not binding on Christians in the New Covenant, nonetheless the concepts of sacrifice, priesthood, cleanliness, and holiness embodied in the rituals and norms of this book are the matrix on and from which the New Testament describes the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, are absolutely essential for understanding His salvific work and that of his Church.

The name Leviticus derives from the Greek leuitikos, an adjective meaning “pertaining to the Levites,” because the book was perceived as primarily concerned with cultic regulations for the Levitical priests.  However, it should be noted that the majority of pericopes in Leviticus address the Israelite laity.  The Hebrew name for the book is wayyiqra, “And he called …” which is the first word of the book, describing the LORD’s call to Moses from the newly-erected Tabernacle.

Prior to the grant of the covenant at Sinai, God promised that obedience to the covenant would result in Israel becoming a “royal priesthood” and “holy nation.”  Every Israelite, therefore, was called to be “holy,” that is, associated with the presence of God.  Of course, there are gradations of holiness, and the same standards of holiness were not imposed on the common Israelite as on the priesthood, which was more closely associated with God’s presence in the sanctuary.

Because of the difficulty in explaining how the laws and rituals of Leviticus, the second Sinai covenant, continue to apply in the New Covenant, Leviticus is the least-read Pentateuchal book in the Lectionary—one of the least-read of the entire canon.  Only two readings from Leviticus are found on Sundays or Feast Days.  An excerpt from the laws of leprousy (Lev 13:1-2, 44-46) is read on the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle B, where it provides the background for the Gospel Reading of the cleansing of the leprous man, Mark 1:40-45.  This Sunday's Reading is the only other Sunday lection from this book.

Leviticus 17–25, often called (with ch. 26) the “Holiness Code” by scholars, lays out the behaviors necessary for Israel to maintain their status as a “holy” people.  Therefore they must abstain from the following “profaning” behaviors: sacrifice to demons (17:1-9), the eating of blood (17:10-16), incestuous or perverted sexual intercourse (ch. 18), and any immoral, unjust, or occult practice (ch. 19).  Violations of these rules must be subject to civil sanctions (ch. 20).  These same standards are even more stringent for priests (chs. 21-22), since they handle the holy things of the LORD directly.

Today’s Reading forbids hatred, revenge, or grudges between members of the Israelite people.  “Bear no hatred for your brother,” (“sister” is not in the Hebrew, but the intent is not gender-specific) and “love your neighbor as yourself,” are challenging commands, but they are limited in their extent to fellow Israelites (i.e. “neighbors” and “brothers”).  In the movement from the First Reading to the Gospel we can see a kind of opening-up or universalizing of the sacred laws of Israel. In the Gospel, Jesus expands the kind of loving relationship that God commanded between individual Israelites to include all human beings.  Israel had been a “laboratory” or “exercise room” where the law of love was put into practice first, in a constrained environment.  With the coming of the Christ, however, it is time for the expansion of the principle and practice to all humanity.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13:

R/ (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
R/ The Lord is kind and merciful.

The key concept emphasized in both the First Reading and the Psalm is imitatio Dei, the imitation of God as the principle of human morality.  We are not to practice hatred, grudges, or vengeance, because God is not hateful, bitter, or vengeful.  “Be holy, for I am holy.”  Holiness does not mean merely moral goodness, but a status of being set apart and associated with divinity.  Holy persons are not merely virtues, but have at least a touch of the supernatural and transcendent about them.  Nonetheless, holiness entails and requires moral virtue—and not simply justice, but something more.  God does not judge according to strict justice, but punishes far less than is deserved, and forgives far more than we merit. 

Psalm 103 comes from a much different stage of Israel’s history than Leviticus 19.  If Leviticus represents the laws of Moses, Psalm 103 is a reflection on Israel’s history attributed to David.  Reflecting on all the ways Israel had offended God, and yet God’s goodness shown toward Israel by bringing them out of Egypt, delivering them from their enemies the Midianites, Moabites, and Philistines; and giving them signs of his presence and compassion—David praises God for his compassion (rahûm, a noun related to the mother’s womb), his graciousness (hanûn, from the root han, “grace” or “favor”), and his kindness (hesed, lit. “covenant love or fidelity”).  God’s character becomes the basis for his people’s culture.

3. The Second Reading is 1 Cor 3:16-23:

Brothers and sisters:
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.

Let no one deceive himself.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,
for it is written:
God catches the wise in their own ruses,
and again:
The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are vain.

So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,
Paul or Apollos or Cephas,
or the world or life or death,
or the present or the future:
all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.

In light of the Gospel for today, the Second Reading takes on a peculiar significance.

St. Paul begins by stressing to the Corinthians that they are the “Temple of God,” and therefore share in his holiness, picking up a theme from the First Reading.  Corinth was a city filled with pagan temples, especially the massive temple of Venus/Aphrodite, which was a major “tourist attraction” due to the sensual way that the goddess was “worshiped” in little side rooms around the main sanctuary.  By contrast, throughout the Corinthian correspondence, St. Paul stresses (both explicitly and implicitly) that the church is the true Temple of God, in contrast to the debased worship buildings of the pagans.

Next, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the wisdom of God seems foolish to the world, and the world’s wisdom seems foolish to God.  This is helpful to keep in mind as we ponder Jesus’ commands in the Gospel: “What sense does it make to turn the other cheek?  Shouldn’t the evil person be opposed? How can enemies be loved?”  These are questions that naturally arise when we are confronted with divine wisdom, the Gospel.  But the logic of God takes place on a different plane than that of this world.  Following Jesus means leaping above human logic and living an other-worldly life.

Finally, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that “everything belongs to you.”  In Christ, the whole universe belongs to us, because we will enjoy it and share it with Christ forever in the world to come.  Christians are spiritually “rich.”  This assurance of our true riches gives us the freedom to part easily with temporary wealth in the here and now.  Thus, we can “give to those who ask of us” and “lend to the one who wants to borrow,” because we know we possess true wealth that lies elsewhere and can never be taken away.

4.  The Gospel is Mt 5:38-48:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This Sunday we read the last two of the “Six Antitheses,” the six statements of Jesus following the form, “You have heard it said … but I say to you ….”  (Matt 5:21-48).  Last week we saw the Antitheses concerned with murder (vv. 21-26), adultery (vv. 27-30), divorce (vv. 31-32), and swearing (vv. 33-37).  This Sunday we deal with vengeance (vv. 38-42) and hatred of enemies (vv. 43-48).

In these Antitheses, Jesus presumes to correct not only the common interpretation of the Law of Moses, but sometimes the Law of Moses itself.  It is difficult to exaggerate the incredible shock that would be felt by Jesus’ contemporary Jewish audience in hearing him teach in this way.  In some strains of Judaism, Moses was considered almost semi-divine.  There was no one above Moses but God himself: no subsequent prophet was ever Moses’ equal (Deut 34:10-12).  In short, the way Jesus teaches amounts to an implicit assertion of his divinity.  Jesus says things that only God has the authority to pronounce.

Jesus begins with quoting the Mosaic standard for court justice: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  That is, a judge should limit the punishment of an offender to the amount of harm he caused.

We observe that this law of Moses was itself an act of mercy in limiting punishments.  Human instinct is to punish the evil doer with more punishment than he inflicted.  And with good reason: if a man destroys the eye of another man, and his own eye is put out as punishment, both perpetrator and victim end up with one eye.  But is that fair that their fates should be the same?  The victim did nothing wrong, the perpetrator did vile evil.  So shouldn’t, perhaps, the perpetrator have both eyes put out, so that his fate is worse than his victim?  So we see it is not illogical to return more upon the head of the evil doer than he did to the other.

But the Law of Moses was lenient, and did not punish with full vengeance.  The recompense was limited to the amount of evil done.

It must be remembered, too, that Moses’ law (the lex talionis) was a guide for courtroom decisions, not for personal morality.  In time, however, the lex talionis was interpreted as justification for vigilante action or personal grudge-settling between individuals.  “Do to others as they do to you.”

Jesus calls his disciples to transcend these attempts to “settle scores” with those who harm us.  He counsels us to offer no resistance, and to give more than is even asked for by those who want something from us.

Jesus’ teaching raises many questions.  “Should not the evil man be resisted?  Should we just let a crazed gunman run into a school and shoot little kids up without doing anything?  Should we let burglars kill us and take our goods if confronted with a home invasion?”

Actually, no.  There is a place and even an obligation for self-defense in the Christian life, and the Catechism discusses it clearly in the section dealing with the fifth commandment (§2263-2267).  Thus, one actually has a grave moral obligation to do anything necessary—up to lethal force—to stop a crazed gunmen headed toward little kids. 

But the examples Jesus’ cites are not of threats to one’s life.  He does not say, “Someone chops off your hand, offer him your other, too,” or “If someone runs at you with a spear, stick out your chest so he can run you through.”

The examples Jesus cites are of insults and claims on one’s property.  “Striking on the right cheek” would be a back-handed slap from a right-handed person.  That is, an insult, not an immediate threat to life.  Suing for one’s cloak, and insisting on a mile of travel, are impositions on one’s goods and time, respectively.  So it is too much to interpret Jesus as forbidding all self-defense or any use of force.  Jesus himself used force in the cleansing of the Temple (2:15-16), showing that there is a place in the Christian life for righteous

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us as his disciples to bear with insults, and to be generous in the distribution of our goods and the sharing of our time.  Jesus is not worried that we will be reduced to poverty by giving away even our clothing, because “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (i.e. those who are poor for spiritual reasons) and God will clothe and feed those who “seek first the kingdom of God” (6:25-33).

When Jesus says, “you heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” he is probably summarizing two passages from the law: Lev 19:13-18, concerning love for enemies; and Deut 20:16-18, which dictates total warfare (= “hatred”) against the Canaanites, the enemies of Israel.  The total warfare against the Canaanites was a troubling feature of Old Testament law, a moral imperfection (like divorce) permitted by Moses, in this case to prevent the apostasy and assimilation of the people of Israel to the debased Canaanite culture.  As Jesus removed the concession for divorce in last week’s reading, so now he corrects the commands on “hatred” of enemies.  “Love your enemies,” Jesus says.  Human nature is to love those who love you, so there is no merit in it.  Only the sociopath or psychologically dysfunctional hates those who love him.  To be like God, to have any moral merit, we must love even the unlovable, because this is the imitation Dei.  God loves the unlovable, starting with each one of us, so we must do the same.  Of course, true love is compatible with correction, rebuke, even punishment (according to Thomas Aquinas) if one is in authority over a wrongdoer, since just punishment aims at the rehabilitation and repentance of the perpetrator.  So loving one’s enemies is more complex than simple “niceness.”  But in many instances, it does include “niceness” as a first step.

Our Lord’s words are not a prescription for a political or judicial system, but counsels for our personal behavior in daily life.  His words are easy to admire and difficult to implement.  Against whom are we bearing grudges this week?  Do we actually pray for those who oppose us?  Catholics, do you pray for those politicians who oppose the culture of life, or do you just criticize them?  What about other enemies of your faith or political life?  What about personal rivals? Against whom are you bearing grudges?  This Sunday is time for personal examination of conscience and soul-searching, to identify where hatred lies in our heart, and to begin the practices of generosity and prayer that can overcome it.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Thanks for this reflection, much to ponder.