Called to be perfect

No one could deny that the Jewish law sets a very high standard. In this reading from Leviticus chapter 19, we’re told to “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.” Be holy as God is holy? Seriously? The Gospel today (Matthew 5: 38-48) concludes with Jesus saying: “Be therefore perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) Does anyone here actually think that you have managed to achieve this or accomplish that? Has anyone managed to strike this one off your eternal plan ‘to-do list’ and now you are asking, okay, so what next? This extreme call to model our lives on nothing less than the moral perfection and holiness of God is an extraordinary call. It is extraordinary in part because the Lord obviously believes that we can do this; that there is something within us that enables us to achieve this in some measure, that opens to us the possibility of true holiness and perfection. What is this attribute? It is the way that we have been created with this possibility for God, this openness to the ways of God, or as the Catholic tradition has described it over the centuries: we have a capacity for God because we have been created in the ‘imago Dei’ – in the image of God. The very image and likeness of God that we have been created in calls us into the fullness of God’s very life. This incredible standard has been set by the Jewish law; yet over the centuries, the Jewish people – like us – tried to modify and redefine and narrow down the law to make it more restrictive and therefore easier to fulfill. Without this reinterpretation of the law, all that they could know was the judgement of the law and the truth of their failure before the standard of the law. For example the commandment that concludes our first reading today, from Leviticus 19:18, which is “You must love your neighbour as yourself,” was redefined. Surely, it was argued, that cannot mean that we are called to love everybody equally – surely it doesn’t mean that we have to love all of geographical neighbours because many of those people are offensive to us – the ones who persecute us, or challenge us, or worship in a different way? Surely it doesn’t mean we have to love the people who dress badly, or smell funny, or drive those cars, or live in that neighbourhood, or vote for that party and listen to that music? Surely it only means that we have to love fellow Jews [Catholics] – especially the ones who are striving like us to be faithful to the commandments? No – the Lord calls us to this extraordinary height – calling us into perfection and union in this life with God. 

Over the last two weeks, we have had these six examples where Jesus has given us new interpretations of the traditional Mosaic law, saying: “You have heard how it was said…” and then redefining them in radical ways by offering a new understanding of the law by saying: “but I say to you…” He calls us into a deeper observance and a more holistic fulfillment. Today we have the final two examples of these new antithesis. “Jesus begins by saying that ‘You have heard how it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” The lex talionis as it is called is a very good law for society since it is meant to limit violence and the escalation of revenge. But Jesus gives us a radical challenge by inviting us to ‘offer the wicked person no resistance.’ The challenge has been felt across the centuries whenever Christians have tried to be faithful to this radical teaching.

We need to understand the context of each of the three examples that Jesus offers if we are to make proper sense of them. When Jesus says if someone hits you on the right cheek, it is presumed that they are a superior, treating you as a slave or a child – as a mere object, and shaming you with the back-handed slap across your face. So when Jesus invites us to offer the left cheek as well – he is saying to the person who has just hit him: you may hit me again, but now you will not hit me as someone inferior to you, but you will treat me as an equal. It is an act of peaceful defiance.

In the second example where a person if taking you to court and wants to take away your tunic, Jesus says to offer your cloak as well. In that society, most people would only own and therefore wear these two items of clothing. So by taking off not just your tunic but also your cloak, and offering it to the person in the courtroom, then you are going to be standing there naked before them, and shaming them by the brutality of their claim which is revealed in your nudity. Again, an act of defiance.

Finally in the third example, we know that Roman law allowed a soldier to force a Jewish person to march with them, but they were restricted to only doing this for one mile. By going two miles instead, you are forcing the soldier to breach the law, and perhaps if a commanding officer sees this taking place, then the soldier will probably get in trouble for this offence. All of these are then ways of redefining the violence and providing a people who are persecuted with an intelligent, peaceful response.

This call then for us to love our enemies as well as our friends is a call to remember our original call and the nature of who we truly are, as people who were created in his image and likeness and who he chose to love us first.  Just as Jesus, when he was asked what is the greatest of the 613 mitzvah or commandments, he responded first with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and then quickly added the final line of our first reading today, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Those last two words are crucial to this – as yourself. How do we respond to this call to love God and love our neighbour? The only way that we can fulfill these laws is by allowing God to love us first. We need to respond to the call that God places upon our lives and respond to the invitation into a relationship with him. We cannot love God; we cannot love any of our neighbours – until we first respond profoundly to the love of God and open ourselves to this love of God.

This call to perfection is not something that is static. The word in the Greek language presumes a very dynamic relationship and a sense of being called into perfection, completion and wholeness. It is a call that we have seen lived out in the lives of so many saints across the centuries. None of them would ever claim that they had achieved holiness or perfection. But they certainly strove for it and made the desire for holiness to be the habit of their lives. The word for perfection here has a sense of orientation about it. It presumes that we have a particular direction to our lives, and what Jesus calls us to today is to have our orientation and direction firmly focussed upon God the Father. It calls us to have our whole heart and energy directed towards God, so that all we desire and long for is directed towards the holiness and perfection of God. The call to be perfect is an invitation to make this drive towards completion the project of our lives. We are called to be holy because God longs to share his holiness with us. We are called to be perfect and we are able to be perfect, because God shares this perfection with us. Let us long for that. Let us make this the story of our lives. Let us strive to bring our lives into conformity with the perfect and beautiful life of Jesus.

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Sunday 07, Year A. 

The law completed

sun behind the bell tower. this is not a collage.The Jewish law, especially the 613 mitzvah or commandments found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament) – with 365 prohibitions (You shall not…) and 248 prescriptions (Honour your father and mother; Keep holy the Sabbath day…), was a colossal achievement. The whole of the Jewish nation – and not just the scribes and Pharisees – were rightly proud of their laws and revered and honoured both the Law / Torah and the God who gave it to them through their father Moses. Jesus begins this section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:17-37) by declaring that he had come not to abolish any of the laws, but to complete them. He goes on to declare that anyone who upholds the law and teaches the law will be considered blessed in the kingdom of heaven; but the opposite is also true.

Bizarrely, Jesus then goes on to make a series of six statements (four of which are included in the Gospel this week; the remaining two will feature next Sunday) where he cites the existing laws using the formula – “You have learnt how it was said” – but then he offers a reinterpretation of the existing law, beginning with an authoritative declaration: “but I say to you…”

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (11’49”)

A salted earth

Cow_dung_pattiesThe writings of the prophet Isaiah continue to echo across the centuries to provide a challenge for us; they were certainly well-known at the time of Jesus and seem to provide the background for the teaching that Jesus gives us in the second part of the sermon on the mount. The call for Israel was to be a sign to the other nations of what a nation that was in a covenant relationship with the God of everything looks like. Israel was meant to live this out and embody it, so that if someone else wanted to know what it would be like to be changed and challenged by the Lord, they could look at Israel and see the presence and power of the God of everything in the people and their way of life. Unfortunately, all that Israel tended to be worried about was seeking justice from the Lord against the other nations and longing for the Messiah to come to set them free from their oppression. 

When Jesus uses these two striking images in the Gospel today (Matthew 5:13-16), the call of the prophet Isaiah (58:7-10) is firmly in mind. Israel was meant to be salt for the earth – to bring flavour; to preserve; to provide light and fire; to challenge and correct all wrongdoing. So the call of Jesus is directed not only to the disciples and all who were listening, but all of us across the centuries who struggle to make sense of the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (10’43”)
Sunday 5, Year A.

Presentation of the Older Brother

leadingThe feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated forty days after Christmas, brings the nativity stories to an end. It is a very Jewish feastday, concerned as it is with the purification of the mother after giving birth to a son (the purification period was doubled for the birth of a daughter – WTF?) and the redemption of the first-born son, in fulfilment of the Mosaic law. The story in the Gospel of Luke also brings the series of stories about the birth of Jesus to a conclusion, with only the final story of the the holy family travelling to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve years old (and on the cusp of manhood). Over the course of these stories, a whole series of figures is given to us in different life situations – from a couple in their middle years (Zechariah and Elizabeth), to a pair of teenagers just starting out (Mary and Joseph) and today two people in their older years who are ready after a faith-filled life to return to their maker. In the midst of all of these examples, Jesus provides the constant theme of a God who is near; a God who fits into all kinds of different situations and circumstances – as an older brother who shares our same human experiences and even our own temptations.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’09”) – includes final blessing at Mass.
Luke 2:22-40; Hebrews 2:14-18.