YARDSTICK IN MEASURING OUR LIFE OF HOLINESS?
HOMILY FOR SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A. Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2. 17-18; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 and Matthew 5:38-45.
In one of the spiritual thoughts of St. Joseph Marello, founder of the Congregation of the Oblates of St. Joseph, he says “Be extraordinary in ordinary things.” This thought is derived from St. Francis de Sales, who portrayed a life of holiness. However, today’s liturgy gives us a challenging dimension that questions our holiness. Can we claim to be Christians or holy and yet pray for the death of our enemies?
Biblically, in the time of Moses and the prophets, holiness meant to set aside or to reserve for God alone and to be different from others. The Hebrew word qadosh, means holy in the sense that God has set aside a person or thing for holy purpose. Thus, the Sabbath is holy, because God established the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy, because God set them apart for his service. However, Holiness, in the highest sense, belongs to God; every other holiness is derived from God’s holiness. However, our holiness requires obedience to God’s laws and the book of Leviticus is a book of laws, given to God’s chosen people to be holy, and chapter 19 is concerned not with the cooperate holiness but with individual holiness to God.
It is on this note that God in the first reading calls us to be holy when he said to Moses, “Say to all congregation of the sons of Israel, ‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’” (Lev. 19:2). The law of holiness was so essential to the Jewish people that they cannot enter the houses of non-Jews or even take meal with them. They were not to mingle, relate, interact nor shake hands with non-Jews because they were seen as holy people and consider non-Jews as sinners/pagans. The Jews considered themselves holy because they were keeping the laws and traditions of their ancestors. In keeping the laws and traditions, they make enmities with others in which the reading of today addressed saying, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (vv.17-18). The laws require the Israelites to love not only their fellow Jews but as well foreigners in their land as they were once foreigners in Egypt (Lev 19:33-34).
Hatred often grows out of jealousy or perceived injustice, and has potential to lead to violence. We recall the story of Cain in Gen 4:3-8 and the story of Esau in Gen 27. Invariable, for the people of Israel to be holy, they must learn to love and accommodate other people, regardless of their tribe, culture, language or political parties, or offenses committed against them. God requires of us even when our offenders offend us to take the initiative to address the issue with the offender. God will not hold the offended person guilty, as guilty as the offending party if the offended person fails to do this. In other words, whether we are the offended party or the offender, we have an obligation to take the initiative to resolve the situation amicably. We are not obligated to ensure the success of the reconciliation, because we cannot control the response of the other. We can, however, make our approach in a manner designed to draw the offended person to us rather than pushing him/her further away. Even when they capitalize on this, let us continue to strive for holiness through this initiative. We don’t need vengeance or violence to redress a perceived wrong. It is not Christian like! The best approach is love.
Christ in the gospel expatiate this as he continues in his Sermon on the Mount, where he outlined the laws and explains it in a deeper sense, as a reminder that he has not come to abolish the laws and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17). He 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, ‘Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” (Mt 5:38-42). Literally speaking, by the principle of the law of retaliation or revenge, we all would have been blind and toothless by now. While it appears barbaric, it represents an early attempt to limit revenge and limit the revenge to the extent of the injury. Also, to regulate and civilize the process by which people seek redress for injuries.
Christ gave specific illustration of people who we might characterize as enemies or those who injure us by giving them our other cheek, let them have our cloak and even go with them two miles. Now he turns to the principles that underline these passive responses, which is the principle of love. He said, “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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” (vv. 43-45). It is difficult to imagine a man being slapped who would not instinctively retaliate. However, Christ calls us to go against our natural instinct. He calls us to make ourselves vulnerable instead of returning blow for blow. While this appears as weakness in the eyes of the world, it demonstrates Christian values. St. Paul says in the second reading, “The wisdom of the world is folly or foolishness with God” (1 Cor. 3:19). So, Christ calls us through the words of St. Paul to be like our Father who is holy, reminding us that we have been set apart and we are temple of the Holy Spirit.
Having been set apart as God’s chosen people, there are expectations from us, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. So, when we measure of level of holiness, let it be with how much we have loved and forgive, not the amount of Holy Ghost fire we call upon our enemies. Obviously, as the Jewish laws appear too hard, Christ took these laws to another level that seems harder, where we no longer depend on our human capacity but on the grace of God. If not the grace of God, some will be of the opinion of “I swear I go do my own back.” We sometimes find ourselves in such situation and realize truly, it is difficult to maintain calm and dialogue in the face of persecution. May God give us the grace to always measure our holiness with love and forgiveness.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ