"Why Christians are expected to be holy" by Fr. Antony Kadavil

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Reflections for the VII Sunday 2020

Introduction: Today’s readings explain why Christians are expected to be holy and how we are meant to become holy people. The first and second readings give us reasons why we should be holy, and the Gospel describes four methods of becoming holy people prescribed for us by Jesus.

Homily starter anecdote: “The goal is reconciliation and redemption.” Martin Luther King, Jr. would take this principle from the Sermon on the Mount and use it to revolutionize America. King used to say, “No man can pull me down so low as to make me hate him.” The real goal, said King, was not to defeat the white man, but to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and to challenge his false sense of superiority. “The goal is reconciliation, redemption, the creation of the beloved community.” The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount which Martin Luther King paraphrased, are totally out of step with our present world, because our world believes in retaliation. 75 percent of Christians believe in capital punishment because they think we can stop the killing by killing the killers. That's retaliation. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Scripture readings summarized: The first reading, taken from the book of Leviticus, gives the holiness code: “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.” It also gives us the way to share God’s holiness: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 103) challenges us to be like our God – kind, merciful and forgiving — and it shows us the measure of perfection Christ asks us to bring to our relationships. In the second reading, St. Paul gives us an additional reason to be holy. We are to keep our bodies holy because we are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit lives in us. In the Gospel passages taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confirms, corrects, and expands the Ten Commandments. Here, Jesus condemns even the mild form of the “Law of the Talion, (Lex Talionis),” the Babylonian tribal law of restricted retaliation which Moses passed on to Israel. In its place, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. For Jesus, retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, even though graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength and discipline of character, as well as strengthening by God’s grace. The second part of today’s Gospel passage is the central part of the Sermon on the Mount. It presents the Christian ethic of personal relationships: love one’s neighbors and forgive one’s enemies. It tells us that what makes Christians different is the grace with which they treat others with loving kindness and mercy, even if they don’t deserve it. We are commanded to love our enemies as Jesus loves us, with agápe love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them as He did for us.

First reading: Lv 19: 1-2, 17-18 explained: The first reading, taken from the book of Leviticus, gives the holiness code: “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.” This passage explains that God of Israel is a transcendent God beyond human knowledge and at the same time a God who wants to be with His people. Therefore, the people are expected not only adore, revere and love Him, but also to share His holiness by living holy lives in God’s presence. The Divine nature is that God is holy, and His holiness consists of His unconditional and magnanimous love, care, concern, mercy, and forgiveness towards every human being. It follows, then, that in order to be holy, we have to be kind, loving, merciful, forgiving, and compassionate toward our neighbors – and this is what God wants us to be when He calls each one of us to be holy, to be spiritually perfect. Listening to the voice of the Lord, we thus realize what holiness entails: bearing no hatred in one’s heart, foregoing revenge, and holding no grudge, particularly towards a fellow citizen. All this is summed up in “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Everyone is to love everyone the way God loves everyone. Indeed, the merciful God gently guides His chosen people on the path of holiness. The reading teaches us that we share God’s holiness when we obey the two great commandments: 1) “Love your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. 2) “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Second Reading: I Cor 3:16-23 explained: In the second reading, St. Paul gives us an additional reason to be holy. We are to keep our bodies holy because we are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit lives in us. The word naos, which Paul uses for temple, refers to the sanctuary, corresponding to the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem where the Lord God chose to dwell. Paul teaches us all that the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us makes our community and each of its members a holy temple, the naos of God. For the Holy Spirit continually gives us His gifts, fruits and charisms with which we can better live the very life of Christ.

Gospel exegesis: Mosaic Law of mild retaliation: During their captivity in Egypt, the Jews became familiar with the crude tribal law of retaliation (Lex Talionis = Tit-for-Tat), given by the ancient lawmaker Hammurabi during the period 2285-2242 BC. When this law was first developed, it made life better and more civilized. It restricted revenge and made it commensurate with the offense. Moses instructed the Israelites to follow tit-for-tat retaliation, rather than to wreak total destruction upon their enemies. That is, instead of mutilating or murdering all the members of the offender’s family or tribe, they should discover the offender and only punish him/her with an equal mutilation or harm. Later, a milder version of this law was substituted. It demanded monetary compensation, as decided by a judge, in place of physical punishment. Moses also gave the Israelites several laws commanding merciful treatment for the enemy (e.g., Lv 19:18). By advising, “Turn to him the other cheek,” Jesus instructs his followers to forgive an insult gracefully and, so, convert the offender. He commands that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us to prove that we are children of a merciful Heavenly Father. The meaning of “turn the other cheek” is “Don’t return insult for insult.” The message of Jesus is, “Don’t retaliate.” Instead, we are to win over the aggressor with tough, wise love, so that we may win people to Christ and transform human society into the Kingdom of God.

The true Christian reaction: Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount rejects even the concession of milder retaliation allowed by Moses. For Jesus, retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, even though graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength and discipline of character, as well as strengthening by God’s grace. Jesus wants his disciples to repay evil with kindness. Instead of retaliation, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. Jesus illustrates the Christian approach by giving three examples. 1) Turn to him the other cheek: Striking someone on the right cheek requires striking with the back of one’s hand, and according to Jewish concept it inflicts more insult than pain. Jesus instructs his followers to forgive the insult gracefully and convert the offender. It is interesting that Gandhi said, “Everyone in the world knows that Jesus and His teaching are non-violent, except Christians.” 2) “If anyone sues you to take away your coat (chitona), let him have your cloak (himation) also”: (v. 40). A chitona is a lightweight garment like a shirt (but long like a robe), worn close to the skin. A himation is an outer garment like a coat and is also long. To surrender both chitona and himation would render a man essentially naked, which suggests that Jesus is using exaggerated language to make the point that we are to defuse conflict by yielding more than is required. Jesus teaches that his followers should show more responsibility and a greater sense of duty than to fight for privileges. 3) Go with him two miles. Roman law permitted its soldiers and other officials to require people to carry a burden for a mile. Service of this sort could be quite oppressive. Here, Jesus tells us that a Christian has the duty of responding, even to seemingly unjust demands by helping or serving gracefully, not grudgingly. The principle is this: When we respond to an onerous duty with cheerfulness rather than resentment, we may win over the one who gave us the duty.

Christian ethic of personal relationships: The second part of today’s Gospel passage is perhaps the central and the most famous section of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us the Christian ethic of personal relationships: love one’s neighbors and forgive one’s enemies. Above all, it tells us that what makes Christians different is the grace with which they treat others with loving kindness and mercy, even if they don’t deserve it. The Old Law never said to hate enemies, but that was the way some Jews understood it. Jesus commands that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us to demonstrate that we are children of a merciful Heavenly Father. A Christian has no personal enemies. If we only love our family and friends, we are no different from pagans or atheists.

We need to love our neighbors and our enemies too: Love of neighbor is incompatible with hatred of enemies (CCC #1933, #2303). The Greek word used for loving enemies is not storge (natural love towards family members), or philia (love of close friends), or eros (passionate love between a young man and woman), but agápe, which is the invincible benevolence or good will for another’s highest good. Since agápe is not natural, practicing it is possible only with God’s help. Agápe love is a choice more than a feeling. We choose to love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them. We have in the Acts of the Apostles the example of St. Stephen, the first martyr, who prayed for those who were putting him to death.

Life messages: 1) We need to have a forgiving heart: Jesus demands that we should forgive, pardon and be generous whether or not our offenders deserve it, and even if we are not loved in return. He also tells us to pray for those who, it may seem, willfully cause us suffering, hardship and unhappiness.

2) We are to try to be perfect, to be like God: We become perfect when we know God’s will and act accordingly. We can do so because the Holy Spirit has been given to us, and He dwells within us, empowering us to do God’s will. We become perfect when we try to love as God loves, to forgive as God forgives and to show unconditional good will and universal benevolence as God does.

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