Gospel for Seventh Sunday (February 23 2014)
Notes on the Gospel
“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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
A similar text may be found in Luke 6:27–28, 32–36.
This text should be read in the light of Matthew 5:17-20:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The contrasts drawn in the text – “You have heard …. but I say to you ….” – should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Torah but as a fulfilment. If there is any rejection in Jesus teaching it is the recurring one that the religious authorities have shifted the emphasis from the agency of the Lord of the Covenant to the agency of the human being endeavouring to be faithful to the Covenant.
A key question arises: In what way is Jesus spelling out the Covenant?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect
This summary statement at the end of our text is open to misinterpretation. It certainly cannot be interpreted as literally requiring “perfection” of us. How could it, given tenor of the Beatitudes that have just gone before it? To require perfection of anyone or anything in this radically imperfect world would be silly.
It is worth noting that Luke’s equivalent passage has “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful”.
It is also worth noting that the idea of God being “perfect” does not appear anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. It seems reasonable to look to texts such as Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. This command is followed immediately by other commands: “You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God”.
This same idea of God’s “holiness” is reiterated in Leviticus 20:26 and 21:8.
The call seems to be asking for a wholehearted response to God’s wholehearted, unmerited self-giving in the Covenant. It is first and foremost about a loving relationship and then, as a manifestation of that relationship and for the development of that relationship, certain attitudes and behaviours are called for – attitudes and behaviours that are not commonly found in human societies.
There is an important logic to this. Before it is a statement of morality it is a statement of mysticism. The morality follows the mysticism and supports it. The mysticism is found in the union of love on offer in the Covenant. It is as if Jesus is saying: “This is what the Covenant means, you are invited to be in love and being in love – infinite love – has surprising consequences!”
Michael Whelan SM
“Consider what happens normally in the world. When we are cursed, we curse back, if only in our hearts. When we are hated we pass the hate on; we keep it, so to speak, in circulation. Someone is mean to me so I take out my feelings on someone else, probably someone weaker than me. So it goes on - in the world of humankind. Tiberius Caesar, growing old and suspicious, is ever more likely to take it out on his government officials; and Pontius Pilate is afraid of what may happen when he gets back to Rome if reports circulate about his ham-handed administration. Pilate, in turn, takes out his fear and spite on the subject people who find themselves at his mercy. The Jews, meanwhile, have reason enough of their own to be bitter and frustrated, and a would-be Messiah who doesn't deliver the goods is an ideal target; and so the weight of the world's insecurity, anger, bitterness, hostility, is heaped on to the head of Mary's son, the young man from Nazareth. ….
“But the divine way is different. Jesus takes temptation, hatred, curses - the bitterness of a bitter world - and he absorbs it into himself on the cross. Jesus, pronounced guilty as a blasphemer, for claiming to be the Son of God, demonstrates on the cross that he was speaking the truth, by doing what only the Son of God could do - loving his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end, the bitter end. And this pattern, acted out uniquely on the cross, becomes then for us, by the Spirit of Jesus working within us, the pattern we are commanded to live out, as we give back good for evil, blessing for curse, prayer for persecution. One might say that this is the vocation of the Church: to take the sadness of the world and give back no anger; the sorrow of the world and give back no bitterness; the pain of the world and not sink into self-pity; but to return forgiveness and love, blessing and joy. That is what Jesus was doing on Calvary. He drew on to himself the sin of the ages, the rebellion of the world and humankind, the hatred, pain, anger, and frustration of the world, so that the world and humankind might be healed, might be rid of it all.”
(N T Wright, The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit, William B Eerdmans, 1995, 52-53)