Old Testament: Leviticus (19:1-2, 9-18)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
The Response: Psalm (119:33-40)
33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.
35 Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.
36 Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.
37 Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.
38 Fulfill your promise to your servant, *
which you make to those who fear you.
39 Turn away the reproach which I dread, *
because your judgments are good.
40 Behold, I long for your commandments; *
in your righteousness preserve my life.
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians (3:10-11, 16-23)
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
The Gospel: Matthew (5:38-48)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
It sounds from today’s gospel reading that there’s a whole lot of loving going on, or at least there is a whole lot of loving that should be going on. Whether it is actually happening or not is the matter at hand.
Today’s reading is actually the completion of last Sunday’s reading. Then we heard the first four of Jesus’ expansions on and deepening of six subjects addressed in the Law and the Prophets. In each case, he says basically, “Yes, do what the Law, the Torah, says; but go much farther than that.” Jesus’ approach is basically the same as the one taken by the rabbis later on, in what they called “putting a hedge around the Law.” Their intent was to be so meticulous about observing the various precepts of the Law and expanding their boundaries around those precepts in order to ensure that the core values were being respected and kept.
Today’s reading addresses the last two of those six topics, concluding with the ultimate challenge in all of them: the challenge to love, the challenge to “Be perfect…, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The final teaching takes the same format as the previous five teachings did: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you.” Jesus’ starting point this time is a quotation from our first reading, taken from the book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor.” For whatever reason, Matthew has him continue that line with the instruction to “hate your enemy.” Where that precept came from nobody knows; it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament.” There simply is no biblical command to hate one’s enemy.
In this passage, Jesus’ words include something that seems to have been genuinely new. What we call “the Old Testament,” what for Jesus was the Bible, orders the people of Israel not to abuse or mistreat their enemies. That’s not a command that was invented by the Geneva Conventions; it’s been around in the Bible for thousands of years. It’s nothing new. But Jesus’ teaching is not just about what not to do, in a negative sense, but what we are to do, in a positive sense: to love our enemies. That’s a remarkable teaching, but it’s also one that leads us to ask a fundamental question: “What does it mean, in practical terms, to love our enemies?”
This past week, many people observed, in one way or another, Valentine’s Day. This can be an occasion to focus especially on those who are closest to us and to express our love and care for them in some special way. But much of what we see all around us in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day are simply some light and fluffy images of a pink, cartoon Cupid, complete with bow and arrow, encouraging people to focus on whatever warm, fuzzy feelings they might have for somebody else.
But the biblical notion of love, while it might include our feelings, focuses primarily on our actions. Love means acting in positive way toward others. And when applied to those whom we might consider to be enemies of one sort or another, love demands actions that are contrary to the way that we feel. As New Testament scholar Douglas Hare (Matthew, p. 59) puts it: “the Christian response [to our enemies] must be abnormal: to negative attitudes and acts we must make positive responses.”
As Jesus explains it in our reading, those positive responses involve both prayer and action. Prayer enables us to rise above our current situation and to see the other person or persons as God sees them, despite what they may have done and what they might continue to do. And our positive actions treat them in accordance with the way that God sees them; and they recognize in them, even if they themselves do not acknowledge it, our common humanity.
Just as he did so often, the great German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, offered us a model of that kind of love-in-action. In 1943, he was imprisoned by the Nazis because of his work in helping German Jews to escape arrest. He was later charged also with participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Yet throughout the two years that he spent in prison and in two different concentration camps before his execution, he showed great respect for his captors as fellow children of God, even as he continued to oppose strongly all that they represented and all that they were doing.
But why do that? Why act in a way that is contrary to all our feelings, to all our natural inclinations? Jesus roots his teachings on loving our enemies, not just in a commandment, but in the very nature of God. The Talmud (Shabbath 133b) would later insist: “Be compassionate and merciful as He is compassionate and merciful.” Jesus directs us simply: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The word that is translated here as “perfect” literally means “complete” or “all-embracing.” Or, as the commentator whom I quoted earlier, puts it (Ibid., p. 62): “You are to be all-embracing in your love, in imitation of God, whose love embraces all.”
Jesus’ call to us to love all people, including those whom we might view as enemies, is rooted in the very nature of God. While we may and in fact must, continue to oppose all that others do that is contrary to the call of God, we need to at the same time to treat them in accordance with their basic nature as fellow children of God: “hate the sin, but love the sinner,” as the old saying goes.
That’s obviously a lot easier said than done. It’s hard for us to make those distinctions, whether we are talking about us as individuals or us as a nation. Those of us who have been around for a good number of decades know how many people in our country failed to make that distinction during the War in Vietnam. They found it hard, or simply refused, to speak out against and maybe even protest the war while still honoring those who served in it. Most people have since moved beyond that confusion of the two. Yet we as a nation have continued to make the same sort of mistake in others ways; and we as individuals continue to do so as well.
Jesus’ call to us at the end of this section of the Sermon on the Mount continues to hold up to us what has to be the ultimate challenge of all time: to love as God loves, to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There’s a challenge and a goal for a lifetime!