Jesus commands us to share our love with all

  • February 9, 2011
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 20 (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48)

What does it mean to be holy? People often toss the word around carelessly but when pressed to define the term they are at a loss. In the Old Testament the term meant that which is set apart — something special and undefiled.

The Book of Leviticus — certainly not everyone’s favourite book of the Bible — contains some very interesting and challenging commands in its Holiness Code. The passage tells us that holiness is one of the defining descriptions of God. God is holy and God commands the Israelites to be the same. This holiness is manifested in behaviour and attitudes that differ from the typically human and the text is quick to elaborate. Hatred is out, as is the bearing of grudges and the taking of revenge. That alone signals a huge modification of ordinary human behaviour and if practised would result in a very different world. But then comes the big one: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. It should sound familiar for Jesus quotes this passage in the Gospels as part of the greatest commandment.

Christianity did not invent the principle of love but passed on an ancient tradition. Love was understood not as sentimentality or personal preference but a practical concern for the well-being and happiness of the other and the refusal to wish or visit harm on them. These few basic principles are the foundation of any human society that wishes to be just, compassionate and peaceful. They are thought to be utopian, impractical and impossible in a modern and complex world. As long as we continue to think that they are they will indeed remain beyond our reach. When they are put into practice, even in an imperfect way, societies and people are transformed.

Paul has some helpful insights in achieving the goal of Leviticus. One is the renunciation of competition and ego, both of which fuel resentment, hatred and selfishness. Paul makes it clear that when all is said and done humans have very little to brag about especially before God. One look at the world we have created should put human pretentions and illusions to rest. God’s wisdom and God’s values are exceedingly different than ours and this is made painfully clear in the life, teachings and death of Jesus. There is another and more profound reason for putting aside all hatred, resentment and selfishness. The community of believers is God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells there. It must be kept pure and holy — unstained by the pollution of human negativity. Unkindness and injustice to others is not only a sign of disrespect and contempt to the victims but also to God.

Gandhi made the insightful comment that when we live by the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” the whole world ends up blind and toothless and that seems to be borne out in our own time. This was originally intended as a limitation of violence — one may exact no more than an equal amount — and was reflected in many of the law codes of the ancient Middle East. Jesus insists that His followers renounce revenge and violence and to get to the heart of the problem He again returns to the love commandment from Leviticus. The love commandment is not denied but expanded and intensified. Love is not just for one’s kinsmen or immediate community members but for all, near and far. Following the divine example love is not to be limited to those who are deserving, dear to us or grateful. Love is for the ungrateful, wicked, morally questionable and just plain difficult or different. Who would that mean in our own time? Just fill in the blanks with those from your own personal experience or from the pages of the newspaper. We are to have no enemies for God has none and the love commandment extends to them.

Jesus sums everything up with the command to be as perfect as God. This sounds like an impossible task, but here the original Greek word means whole, complete and undivided. In other words, we are invited to display perfection by the way in which we love others. Difficult to be sure, but not impossible — every day brings countless opportunities to begin learning the lessons of love. A hurting world waits.