Difficult demands, but not impossible to meet

Be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.” This is God’s call to His people in the first reading.

Feb 18, 2023

Reflecting on our Sunday Readings with Archbishop Emeritus John Ha

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18;
1 Corinthians 3:16-23;
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

Be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.” This is God’s call to His people in the first reading. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is Christ’s call to His disciples in the Gospel. How do you feel about each of these calls? Understandably, our responses are generally negative:

“No; that’s not possible.” “How could God or Christ be so unreasonable? How can we, imperfect and sinful human beings, ever reach the standards of the all-holy and perfect God?” “If that is God’s demand of me, I am doomed and damned.” We can add on to the list of these negative responses.

Are God’s and Christ’s expectations of us really unreasonable? Do They make demands beyond our ability to meet them? Will They leave us to perish in hopeless and helpless situations because we cannot meet Their demands? A closer look at the readings will help us understand the calls God made to His people and Christ made to His disciples.

In the first reading, “be holy” is concretely spelt out in terms of relationship with neighbour: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love vanquishes hatred and vengeance. Love seeks the good of neighbour as much as one’s own. On this score, it embraces fraternal correction for betterment, not just of one’s neighbour, but of oneself as well. Love relationship with neighbour flows from an experience of God’s love and constitutes a response to it.

Relationship lies at the core of the Old Testament concept of holiness. To be holy in the Old Testament is to be separated from, in order to be separated for. With reference to relationship, the first reading sees the separation as from hatred for those who hurt and offend and a desire to take revenge on them. This separation results in forgiveness of offenders and even restoration of relationship with them. Separation is thus from hostility for relationship with neighbour.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes up God’s call to be holy but rephrases it thus: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He also articulates it in terms of relationship with neighbour. He thus instructs His disciples not to follow the “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” demand, but to “turn the other cheek” when the right cheek is hit and to give more than what is asked for. Taking this point further, Jesus calls for forgiveness of enemy, which goes beyond love of neighbour. Loving friend and foe alike is modelled on God’s goodness and generosity towards bad and good men, dishonest and honest men alike. It reflects God’s perfection and makes one “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.”

To sum up, God’s call for holiness and Jesus’ call for perfection amount to demands for radical efforts to live in good relationship with people. These demands may, at times, be very difficult to meet, but they are not impossible, especially with help from the Holy Spirit. Clearly, one very difficult area is forgiveness, especially when the hurt caused is very deep. Forgiveness calls for extreme generosity. But once offered, forgiveness destroys hatred and turns foe into friend. Many people have transcended their hurts to forgive those who caused these hurts. This is evidence that forgiveness is possible. Forgiveness yields good relationship and is an unmistakable expression of love.

Good relationship with neighbour and forgiveness of an enemy make one “holy as God is holy” and “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.” When in the wilderness His people radically rejected Him in favour of a golden calf, God forgave them and continued to accompany them in their journey towards the Promised Land. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, He prayed to His Father to forgive His enemies on the grounds that they did not know what they were doing.

As disciples of Jesus Christ and as children of the one Father in heaven, it is our mission to love friend and foe and, in this way, to draw all into a life of love with one another. In this lie our holiness and our perfection, modelled after the holiness and perfection of God our Heavenly Father.

(Archbishop Emeritus John Ha is from the Archdiocese of Kuching.)

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