The Gospel passage for this week comes from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The passage continues the reading from last week where Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the importance of obeying God’s commands. He calls the disciples to be “righteous” before God. Their righteousness, he says, must surpass the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus’ rebukes of the Pharisees in the Gospels many times deal with their superficial observance of the law, failing to get to the “heart” of the law by holding others to an even more rigorous reading than they themselves follow.
Jesus then begins to teach his disciples how to get to the “heart” of the law. He cites a commandment of the law by stating “You have heard it said,” then cites a law before saying, “But I say to you…” after which he gives an interpretation. The interpretation teaches the disciples and us how to live out the law, to internalize it the way the Father intends us to live it.
In last week’s passage Jesus spoke on the commandments against killing, on taking oaths, on adultery and divorce. In this week’s passage he speaks on revenge and love of neighbor. In both cases the laws in question represent an understanding of how to conduct relations with someone who has wronged a person.
The first law cited seeks to rectify an unjust situation and find retribution for the wronged person. The moral principle is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The basic premise of this moral principle is that nothing more can be extracted from a person who did the wrong than that which they committed or in the case of theft, stole.
Jesus interprets this law from a different perspective, that of mercy. Here he teaches that the way to rectify the situation is to forgive.
The second law cited speaks of loving our neighbor and hating our enemies. This understanding “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” still abounds in the world today. We see it all the time. Jesus teaches that the law of love applies to all regardless of their relationship with us, whether it be peaceful or harmful. The call to love applies to the person not the situation. The activity of the person committing the transgression or evil acts may be wrong and unjust — and Jesus is not disputing this — but the call to love remains in place.
The call to love goes beyond a righteousness based on retribution. God loves and forgives; he calls us to do the same.
The call to forgive and to love echo the teaching of the law in Leviticus which serves as the first reading for Sunday’s liturgy. The passage is actually taken from one of the accounts of the “Ten Commandments” in the Torah. Here the command is given not to “bear hatred in your heart,” even when you have to “reprove your fellow citizen.”
The law states that revenge is not an option nor is holding a grudge. Rather the rule for that relationship shall be: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Later Jesus will join this commandment with the first commandment as the greatest commandment and the summation of the law. When he is asked to qualify the second, the love of neighbor, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus concludes this section by saying: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus invites us into the mystery of divine life and love. The internalization of God’s way is an ongoing quest, like a journey. It is a journey that seeks to realize the Kingdom of God in our very lives, relationships, desires and activities now.
This is the way of holiness. It is the same holiness of which God spoke to Moses in the earlier covenant. “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.”
The way of the Lord may seem challenging, and it is. Yet Jesus’ teaching is real and possible to live. He himself witnesses to this over and over again. Perhaps the greatest example is on the cross when he says: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus’ way is the way of the Father. He invites us to share in that way through forgiveness and love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.