A Reflection for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
This Sunday the Lord assigns us with a tough task: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Why such a tall order?
No one knows more than Saint Paul the Apostle how difficult it is to be a follower of Christ: shipwrecked, scourged, nearly stoned to death… the list goes on. What for? In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul reminds us of the answer: “You belong to Christ!” Made in the image and likeness of God, you are a Temple of the Holy Spirit. You, like everyone else, are called to be holy (1 Corinthians 16-23).
To understand Christ’s challenge to be as perfect as God in this Sunday’s Gospel, we not only need to consider the other readings this week, we need to look back to the ones from last week as well.
Last week we learned that the purpose of the law is to teach. More specifically, the law’s purpose is to teach God’s people, Israel, how to live good and holy lives. This week’s First Reading from the Book of Leviticus stresses this point from the onset:
The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
The parallel between these lines from the first reading and the Gospel reading (be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect) is not insignificant. Moses, the lawgiver, is a ‘type’ of Christ. That is, though a literal historical figure, he is also an allegorical prefiguration of Jesus Christ, the true giver and fulfiller of the law. Hence, Jesus constantly alludes to Moses in His Sermon on the Mount. For on the one hand, all Jews recognize and revere the authority of Moses, while on the other hand, Jesus wants to draw his listeners’ attention to the fact that His authority surpasses that of Moses (it was the LORD, after all, who gave the law to Moses), and as a type, Moses points forward to Him. So on hearing Christ’s preaching, the crowd immediately picked up on the weight behind His words.
The passages parallel one another in other important ways. Leviticus 19 unpacks the law God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai (i.e., the 10 commandments) emphasizing how the Israelites were to treat their neighbor. Likewise, Jesus elaborates on the law of Moses in his Sermon on the Mount. The comparison is clearer when we delve deeper into Leviticus 19. Here is a sample from the text that is omitted in the reading for this Sunday:
You shall not exploit your neighbor. You shall not commit robbery. You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your laborer. You shall not insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God. I am the LORD.
You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment. Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty, but judge your neighbor justly. You shall not go about spreading slander among your people; nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:13-16)
Here we see that the point of the law is not simply to keep people from hurting people, but to transform them into the type of people worthy of the name “God’s people”. Hence, the constant reminder: “I am the LORD.”
The line “Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty, but judge your neighbor justly,” drives home the point that all people are equal in God’s eyes because all people are God’s people – made in his image and likeness. In the words of the Great Pope St. John Paul II, the only proper and adequate way to treat another person is with love (Love and Responsibility, 41).
Moses thus encapsulates the heart of the law – what it means to be God’s people – in five words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:17).
The law God gave to Moses, however, contains a lot of negatives, i.e., don’ts. It is as if the heart of the law were “don’t do on to others what you would not have them do on to you,” rather than the positive, “do on to others as you would have them do on to you.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blatantly changes the tone. The message is no longer “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth,” but “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”
Jesus raises the standard, reinforcing the message that we are all God’s people when he says:
“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,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
From the Christian’s standpoint, there are only two types of people: those who belong to Christ and those who should. Therefore, we ought to treat all people the same, with love.
Is that such a tall order? Try this exercise. Is there anyone to whom you would give the shirt off your back? Who was first person who came to your mind? Now, think of the person you would instantly turn your back on if you saw them. The message of today’s Gospel is that you should treat them both the same. It’s a tall order. We should willingly go the extra mile for anyone who asks it of us. Not grudgingly, Willingly.
If everyone could make this their motto and live it, we would all be saints: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When you think about it, it’s hard. When you work at it, you’ll find it’s no less hard. If you keep working at it, it will make you humble and keep you humble. And also, joyful — because saints are happy people!
That’s what it means to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.