- Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 & Psalm 119:33-40
- 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
- Matthew 5:38-48
Introduction: Holy perfection, perfect holiness
The lectionary readings this weekend invite us to imagine reaching levels of spiritual perfection that reflect the character of God. That sets the bar pretty high as we draw towards the close of this unusually lengthy Epiphany season:
- Leviticus 19 – a holiness that derives from (or reaches towards) the holiness of God
- 1 Corinthians 3 – living temples for God’s own presence in the world
- Matthew 5 – a perfection that derives from (or reaches towards) the perfection of God
First Reading: Leviticus and the love of neighbour
The excerpt from Leviticus 19 has been carefully edited to focus on those elements that compliment the Gospel passage this week, but perhaps also to avoid the embarrassment of reading a text that is so far removed from the values and practices of most contemporary congregations.
This chapter of Leviticus does indeed include both a direct command for love of neighbour as well as a number of practical prescriptions to protect and assist those in need. Interestingly, these obligations are framed by a theological assertion that the character and actions of the covenant people should reflect the character (the holiness) of God.
However, this chapter covers a much broader set of rules for holy living.
Some of these rules are not ones that we would find especially cogent today, although some remain as important now as they were almost 3,000 years ago. The issues covered in this catalogue of practical holiness include:
- reverence for parents
- Sabbath observance
- no idols and no cast images
- rules for sacrificial food, including exclusion (possibly death) for breaches
- leaving edges of the harvest for the poor to glean
- no stealing, false dealing, lying or profaning
- no defrauding neighbours, stealing, withholding wages, reviling the deaf, or placing obstacles for the blind
- no unjust sentences, no special treatment for the rich and powerful, no slandering, and no profiting from other’s death (literally, “blood”)
- no hatred of anyone in the heart, no failure to warn others of dangerous behaviour, no vengeance, no grudges, love your neighbour as yourself
- keep God’s statutes, no cross-breeding of animals or plants, no mixing of cloth in the one garment
- rules for expiating guilt after a man has sex with someone else’s female slave (!)
- no fruit to be eaten from trees in Palestine for the first four years after the conquest
- no blood to be consumed with the meat, no augury or witchcraft, no trimming of facial hair, no tattoos and no gashing of the flesh in mourning rituals
- no profaning of daughters by selling them as prostitutes, but keep Sabbath and respect the holy places
- no consulting mediums and wizards
- stand up in front of old people and show respect for the aged
- look after resident aliens
- no cheating with weights and measures
We might wonder what kind of people needed to be told not to engage in some of these actions, but the deeper insight perhaps comes from reflecting on the everyday implications of a radical appreciation of God’s character. Our understanding of the Sacred is to have real and observable implications for the ways we act in everyday relationships. Love for God will generate love of neighbour, even if the historical and cultural dimensions vary from one context to another.
Gospel: Perfection, no less
The week’s excerpt from Matthew continues the selections from the Sermon on Mount, and completes the series of antitheses:
- (in the past) no murder, (now) no hatred (5:21-26)
- (in the past) no adultery, (now) no lust (5:27-30)
- (in the past) no divorce without a certificate, (now) no marriage after divorce (5:31-32)
- (in the past) no false swearing, (now) no oaths at all (5:32-37)
- (in the past) an eye for eye, (now) turn the cheek, go the second mile (5:38-42)
- (in the past) love your neighbour, hate your enemy, (now) love your enemy (5:43-47)
The underlying dynamic of these sayings is to portray Jesus as a rigorous teacher of the Torah, but a rabbi whose focus was on internal coherence rather than external compliance.
While sometimes understood as a displacement of Torah, Matthew actually represents Jesus as calling for a level of Torah observance that exceeds the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Far from being a rejection of Jewish Torah, Matthew represents a reaffirmation of Torah as central to Christian identity and practice.
The spiritual instincts of the Matthean community were very different from those seen in the letters of Paul. They represent very different expressions of early Christianity, but Matthew’s perspective was not the way of the future as Christianity became increasingly isolated from its Jewish roots. In the aftermath of successive Jewish uprisings against the Roman Empire, some second century Christians even contemplated abandoning the Old Testament as they sought to distinguish themselves from Judaism. In the end, the Jewish Scriptures found a permanent place within the Christian Bible, but relations between Christians and Jews sank to a low ebb in many parts of the empire. Matthew’s preference for describing Jesus in traditional Jewish categories did not hold sway over the Christian imagination, and Pauline categories with their emphasis on Jesus as the divine kyrios came to dominate the christological debates of the third and fourth centuries.
The two antitheses that comprise this week’s Gospel are among the most distinctive of the teachings attributed to Jesus.
- The injunction to turn the other cheek, to give one’s cloak (for night time protection) when our daytime clothing is demanded, and to carry the enemy soldier’s baggage for an additional mile beyond what he could legally impose is radical indeed. Choosing not to retaliate, but to serve even more generously than (unjustly) demanded by an oppressor is a supreme act of the human spirit. These examples, however, are not as innocent as they may seem to anachronistic Western eyes. To turn the cheek would require the enemy to dishonour himself by using his left hand, while to relinquish one’s legal right to the overnight protection of the cloak would be to disclose the shameful conduct of the oppressor. And to insist on carrying the soldier’s equipment for an additional mile would undermine his sense of supremacy, as well as deftly challenging his capacity to control and coerce by his military powers. This is subversive wisdom at its best.
- The command to love even one’s enemy moves the contest of wills to a new level entirely. There is, of course, no Old Testament command to hate one’s enemies; although there far too many biblical examples of tribal violence and ethnic cleansing directed towards the enemies of ancient Israel. As represented by Matthew, Jesus calls for a higher level of holiness, a more complete perfection. To be truly authentic the person of faith must do far better than caring about neighbour and friend. To be “perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” requires love even for one’s enemies.
These instructions do not belong to the doctrinal essence of historic Christianity, but they are at the centre of its sacred wisdom for everyday life. Can we imagine—or, better still, create—a church that practised these injunctions, and gave more weigh to the authenticity of its members’ treatment of others than to their theological correctness?
- 140 The Other Cheek: (1a) 1Q: Luke 6:29 = Matt 5:38-41, (1b) Did. 1:4a.
- 103 Give Without Return: (1) Gos. Thom. 95; (2a) 1Q: Luke 6:30,34,35b = Matt 5:42; (2b) Did. 1:4b,5a.
- 114 Love Your Enemies: (1) P. Oxy. 1224, 2 r i, lines 1-2a; (2a) 1Q: Luke 6:27-28,35a = Matt 5:43-44; (2b) Pol. Phil. 12:3a; (2c) Did. 1:3b.
- 117 Better Than Sinners: (1a) 1Q: Luke 6:32-35 = Matt 5:45-47; (1b) 2 Clem. 13:4a [from Luke 6:32]; (1c) Did. 1:3b; (2) Ign. Pol. 2:1.
- 141 As Your Father: (1a) 1Q: Luke 6:36 = Matt 5:48, (1b) Pol. Phil. 12:3b.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.