God's Word on Sunday: Only God’s way will lead us from darkness

  • February 17, 2023

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

What does it mean to be holy? For starters, it has little or nothing to do with conventional piety. The tradition in the Old Testament offers a different perspective: holy is as holy does. 

The Hebrew word for holy — kadosh — meant something set apart. Something or someone set apart in this manner was radically different in meaning and experience from surrounding spaces or objects. These holy places were approached with caution and even dread, and only by those authorized to do so. The supreme example of holiness was God — the “totally other” — far above human categories or control. God was set apart and God expected the same of the people of Israel. They were to be different, and they were set aside for a purpose. 

Israel was intended to be an example to the nations and the cutting edge of God’s plan of redemption for humanity. What better way to be different than to refrain from hating and bearing grudges? And to love one’s neighbour as oneself — reproclaimed by Jesus in the New Testament — is to make one very different indeed. 

It is no secret that we live in very difficult and even dangerous times. What is called for is great love and holiness, which are virtually the same thing. If we refuse to hate, exclude, defame or seek revenge, then our holiness will contribute to the healing of the world. But giving in to those negative temptations will hasten the disintegration and demise of life in our world regardless of our piety or religious convictions. This is not easy, but it will be easier if we refuse to be sucked into the negative vortex of public opinion, the Internet and the media. 

As we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, our neighbour is anyone in need — in fact, anyone at all. Love does not recognize limits and barriers imposed by humans. God is holy, and we can be too.

We are God’s temple, and the Spirit of God dwells in us. That sounds almost like a slogan or a throw-away line, but unpacked and properly understood, it is a game-changer. Paul uses this metaphor twice in 1 Corinthians — once referring to the individual believer, and in this instance, to the community as a whole. 

We would not think of defiling a holy place, object or person. The way we treat others and our attitudes towards them reflects our relationship with and understanding of God. The community of believers is where God dwells — both in its individual members, as well as in ourselves. It is essential that we regain the awareness of God’s presence in our midst and in one another.

Matthew relates some of the most problematic and difficult words in the New Testament: resist not an evildoer; turn the other cheek. That is easier to accomplish in ordinary interpersonal relationships, but what about cases of violent attack or the invasion of one’s country? Were the Allies wrong in standing up to Hitler? Do we have to let people attack and abuse us? The “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” principle gives us a clue. This was originally intended to be a principle of moderation and proportionality rather than a licence for mayhem. But as it’s been said, living by this principle leaves the world blind and toothless. 

Jesus was asking us to forgo revenge and the need for retribution or satisfaction. Patience and forgiveness go a long way, but He raised the bar even higher: love your enemies and those who persecute you — and pray for them. This goes against our natural desires and inclinations, for we often want to lash out and get even. 

But why should we love our enemies? Because God does — and God has consistently urged us to mirror the divine example. God plays no favourites, does not condemn, has no desire to punish. God loves unconditionally and without limit and so should we. Jesus insists that this is the only way we will be recognized as children of God — by the quality and nature of our love. There are no shortcuts or substitutes. 

We have been offered a way out of the darkness, suffering and injustice of our world. The human way of doing things has not worked — let us try God’s way.