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The unholiness of hate

Derek Tovey reveals the demands of this week's readings on all who hope for holiness: to care for the poor, be fair to workers and love those who hurt or threaten you.  

Derek Tovey   |  13 Feb 2017

Sunday 19 February 2017 - 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Gospel Themes

God’s True Children /The Essence of the Law

Sentence

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NRSV).

Collect   

Bountiful God, you send sun and rain to the righteous and the unrighteous.  Let your grace fall upon your people, enable us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us so that we may truly be your children. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings

Leviticus 19:1 – 2, 9 – 18.

Psalm 119: 33 – 40

1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23

Matthew 5: 38 – 48

Leviticus 19: 1–2, 9–18

This reading connects with our Gospel reading in the injunction given in v. 2:

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”.Compare Matt. 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. 

In a sense, both texts lay out the basis of “the law”, or the essence of what it means to live as God’s people. At heart, the motivation is the same here as in the gospel reading. We are to be “God-like”. As Christians we would also say “Christ-like”, as Christ is our best model for God’s character. Our style of life must not only model God’s character, but it must be a beacon to others as to what God is like.

This passage is part of a stretch of text in Leviticus referred to as “The Holiness Code” (Lev. 17 – 26).A feature of this code is its repeated demand that the people of Israel are to be holy, “because I, the Lord you God am holy” (19:2; 20:7, 26).

Sometimes, as in 20:7, the injunction is to be holy “for I am the Lord your God”, see also 21:6, 8; 22:2, 15-16, 31, 33.

The implication is that Israel's behaviour is tied to their relationship with their God. We might also say that God’s character sets the standard for their behaviour. In the Septuagint Greek translation, the word used here for “holy” is hagios , (or plural hagioi ), a word used frequently by Paul to describe the readers of his letters most frequently translated as “saints”. 

We can paraphrase verse two then, as “You shall be holy ones for I the Lord your God am a holy One”.

In Walter Kaiser's commentary on Leviticus in The New Interpreter’s Bible he shows how verses 9 – 18 echo the Ten Commandments. He points out that these lines reinforce and practically illustrate the Ten Commandments, but do not revise them. Aspects of the Sermon on the Mount (from which our gospel reading is drawn) also extend and illustrate principles of the commandments and Jewish law.

But whereas this week's gospel reading focuses on responding to how others treat us, Leviticus 19:9 – 18 deals with how to behave when we have power or privilege. These texts lay out how the faithful should act towards others: the poor (help provide for their needs); their employees (don’t be a stingy employer, make sure you provide the wages on time, especially if the employee’s livelihood, health and well being depend on receiving them).There are other commands here too: don’t steal, don’t defraud, don’t be partial in the way you treat people; don’t despise, mock, or mistreat people with disabilities; don’t take revenge, don’t bear a grudge.

These exhortations and injunctions conclude with the line that has forms part two of our Lord’s summary of the law: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (see Matt. 22:37 – 39).

How do we translate these commands into our contemporary society? For example, what is the equivalent of not completely harvesting your crop so that “the poor and the alien” may have some (vv. 9, 10)? In what ways would an employer be guilty of “keeping for [oneself] the wages of a labourer until morning” (v. 13)?

Psalm 119: 33 – 40

These verses are part of a long psalm (or poem) set out in as an acrostic poem based on the letter "Het" from the Hebrew alphabet. They appear in the form of a prayer to God, which teaches the supplicant “the way of your statutes”.

This prayer asks that the  faithful may understand and keep God’s law, so as to “observe it with my whole heart”. How does this fit with the theme of being “like God”, or being holy as God is holy; or getting to the essence of the law?

Notice that verses 36 and 37 recount what gets in the way of following God’s ways: “selfish gain” (v. 36), “vanities” (v. 37, NRSV), or “worthless things” (v. 37 NIV). Possibly, “worthless things” refers to “idols”, so at heart the prayer is that for us it will be God (and God’s “ways”) that take precedence over self or other “gods”.

1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23

Here, Paul explains how the Corinthian Christians should not boast of human leaders, but only of God through Jesus Christ. How can this help us understand a Christian life centred on God and God’s wisdom?

This passage forms part of a longer section (beginning in 1:10, ending at the end of chapter four) in which Paul argues for the difference between human “wisdom” and God’s wisdom. It is human wisdom, and a human way of thinking, that has led to divisions within the Corinthian church, as different factions engage in a kind of spiritual “one-upmanship”.

Paul uses the image of a building, and the act of building, to get his point across. The only foundation a Christian may have, he writes, is Christ Jesus.  What does it mean to have Jesus as the foundation? What is the nature of a building with Christ as its foundation? Paul plays on the wisdom theme in this passage by referring to his part in “building” the church as that of a “wise” ( or in the NRSV, a“skilled”) master builder.

Then in verses 6 and 7 Paul applies the image of a specific type of building to the Corinthians.They are God’s temple (the word  literally means God’s “sanctuary”).They are where God dwells: as in “the holy of holies”? “God’s temple is holy” (v. 17b, NRSV): God’s temple is hagios, just as God and Israel were in the Leviticus reading. And Paul goes on, “you  are that temple” (v. 17c). What does it mean to be God’s holy temple? What implications does this have for our manner of life?

Paul rounds out this part of his argument by making the point that God’s wisdom overturns human wisdom. (We might ruefully consider the truth of that as we listen to the gospel reading) Then Paul returns to where he began in 1:10 – 13 to say boasting about human leaders is futile: belonging to Christ (who belongs to God) is all that truly matters, and all the rest follows.

Matthew 5:38 – 48

This gospel reading is both compelling and challenging. It is compels us because it appeals to our ideals: we like the idea of overcoming violence and hatred. It is challenges, because the non-retaliatory response it lays out is so demanding. It is difficult to follow, because it goes against our nature to “turn the other cheek” when hurt or insulted.

Our gospel passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7).

Could this be regarded as Jesus’ radical “holiness code”, set into Matthew’s Gospel as a gospel “holiness code”?

The Sermon on the Mount appears to be aimed at Jesus' disciples (though a good number of the crowd may also have listened in). This passage ends with a challenge to demonstrate our family likeness by loving our enemies. In that way we show we are “children of [our] Father in heaven” (v. 45a).  

Some commentators have interpreted turning the other cheek, and going the second mile as a clever strategy to shame the other party — the striker or enforcer, the demanding one — into desisting from their action.

The argument goes that, in the culture Jesus spoke into, one would only strike a person with the back of the hand  – a back-handed slap to the right cheek  and it was shameful to do otherwise.

This meant that any (right-handed) person striking a person on their left cheek – when it was turned to them – would either have to use the open hand, or change hands to strike appropriately.

In Jesus' hearers' time, a Roman soldier was allowed to press-gang someone into carrying their kit for one mile, but no further.

To go a second mile would discomfort the soldier who had commandeered the person’s time and effort. Do these explanations change the nature of the teaching? If so, how? Or is this teaching a straight-out demand not to retaliate?

Jesus’ words about loving one’s enemies (verses 43 – 47) seem pertinent to our current political situation.

As I write, media and social media are full of news and commentary on President Donald Trump’s ban on refugees (especially from Syria) and immigrants (especially from seven Muslim-majority countries where the threat of terrorism seems greatest).

How should we respond to those who are different from us? What are the implications of Jesus’ words for our attitudes to those who appear to threaten our way of life, our values, our security, and perhaps even our lives? Can we find it within ourselves to live as “children of [our] Father in heaven” (v. 45)?

In his 1981 book, The Call to  Conversion , Jim Wallis wrote movingly about how easy it is to hate a faceless enemy.

We dehumanise our enemies, he said, but when we see them as humans like us we find it harder to hate. Is that still so? In our image-driven, social media age, we can easily see those who perpetrate acts of terror and can put faces to them.

But can we love them? Can we pray for them?

After 9/11, I struggled to know how to pray for those who had supported and helped plan those attacks.(Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban). Or closer still, what about those known to us who have hurt us, against whom we are inclined to hold a grudge?

The teaching of this passage,has to do with our attitudes and responses to those who harm us, who inconvenience us, who take advantage of us, who hate us, who act as our “enemies”.

What will mark us out from others as Christians? Our passage ends with the challenging words to be “perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect.

The Greek word, teleios,  also means “complete”, “fully developed”, “mature”. It seems completely counter-cultural, and it is, but Jesus’ words here point us towards the way to be “complete, mature” human beings.

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