Homily for 7th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A, 2023
The theme of holiness is central to our readings today. And the link between holiness and love of neighbour is emphasised. Our first reading has the commandment: “Be holy, because God is holy”, followed by “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then in our gospel, we have Jesus saying suffer evil out of love, treat others the way God treats them. Both readings make a clear link between love of God and love of neighbour. There is also a clear priority. The way God is, the way God treats us, is determinative for how we relate to others. God’s holiness means we should be holy. But what does this mean?
I would like to make a suggestion about how we think of holiness. I would like to suggest we think about holiness in terms of freedom. What does this mean in relation to God?
God is absolutely free. Nothing in creation can affect God. The technical terms is divine simplicity. God has no potential. God is always already fully in action. Pure love, pure goodness, pure beauty, pure unity. We hear something of this in Jesus saying God treats the good and the bad no differently. God’s actions are determined by nothing but God.
In this sense, we also see something of the ancient understanding of God as the first cause. God is in no sense caused by anything else. The very nature of God is the mystery of beginnings. This again is another way of saying God is completely free: nothing causes God, and nothing causes God’s action except only God.
Can we say the same thing about our actions towards each other? Do we do the right thing no matter the circumstances? Do we mirror God in this way? Are we free like this? It should go without saying that this is incredibly difficult. Perhaps even impossible for us without God’s grace. But that grace is on offer.
Perhaps then a better question might be: do we believe that such a life is truly good? Do we think that such an approach to our interactions with others is truly desirable? This is worth praying about.
And perhaps part of our meditation on this should involve two related questions: 1) is it worth giving this a go before we make a decision, before we assume certain results, and 2) what alternative is there?
The first question about having a go before we dismiss it, is of course simply repeating the act of faith in Jesus. If Jesus says do something, shouldn’t we do it, trusting that God would not ask us to do something that is either a) impossible or b) bad for us?
The second question, though less spiritually challenging, is nevertheless interesting. What alternative is there to what Jesus is commanding?
We hear Jesus replacing the lex talionis, an eye for an eye. What is worth remembering is that this is actually a good law. It stops revenge from escalating. It stops the contagion of violence from spreading out of control, like a bushfire that could burn everything down. We all know the seductive power of revenge.
But though it is a good law. It still does not seriously undermine the initial violence. It might stop the spread but it does not begin to uproot the initial weed.
The first reading goes a step further. It has a law that says treat others as you would like to be treated. This suggests more is required than not simply seeking revenge. But again treating others based on how we want to be treated requires that we know how we want to be treated. And so that law begins with God’s holiness.
But even then that law while it may uproot the weed in our own hearts perhaps does not help the other person to spot the weed in his or her own heart. I think it is only Jesus’s formulation that does this. It is only the Cross that totally upends the logic of violence and revenge. God in being killed and returning with peace be with you reveals the violence in our own lives while also offering us a chance to repent. A change to start anew. A chance to participate in the new beginning that God is.
So, perhaps as we approach the beginning of Lent, we might pray on this great challenge, perhaps the greatest challenge, namely, to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. Do we truly want this? Do we truly believe that with God it is possible? Are we prepared to suffer to show it to others?
There are a number of ways of approaching the mystery of God. There is the typical philosophical way of arguing a first cause. That is: for something to exist, there must be a cause and that cause must have acted. However, there must be a first cause, otherwise the chain never gets started. This is the philosophical understand of God: the first cause that is unlike any other cause.
Christianity, however, goes far beyond this. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ reveals that God is Trinitarian. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is defined in terms of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son is defined in terms of the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is defined in terms of the Father and the Son. God is a communion of person, each of whom is defined by the others. God is one and God is relational.
Perhaps these two ways of considering the mystery of God – God as first cause and God as relational – can help us begin to understand what Jesus is doing here. Perhaps it can help us understand how Jesus’s new commandment makes us holy like God, makes perfect like God.
I’d like to begin with the idea that God is Trinitarian, and that each person is defined by the others.
When we have our primary school to Mass, we often go over three basic questions. I ask: who is Jesus? God. What is God? Love. And what is love? Putting the other person first. We work this out through various readings, but I tell the students that if you know these three questions, then you can usually work out the rest. Perhaps this approach can also help us come to grips with this week’s readings, both the gospel and the call to absolute holiness which runs throughout.
In fact, I would like to go further than that. When understood a certain way, our readings show a phenomenal development in theology, as well as an approach to justice that also transcends what went before. And perhaps we should start with this development in justice.
When we hear in today’s readings the lex talionis, namely, the law of an eye for an eye, we can be tempted to dismiss it as a form of barbarism, an ancient law that is beyond the pale now. What we should, however, realise is that this law was a major development. In setting a limit on revenge, it prevented the horror of escalating violence, escalating violence that in the end would lead to the destruction of civilisation. The definition therefore of a limit to revenge was a huge step forward in social relations.
However, this approach to justice proceeds from a certain assumption about social relations. It presumes the necessity of retribution and therefore punishment. It also focuses on the entitlement of the injured party. And when we think about it, this is still the basis of modern law, perhaps with the addition of one important qualification. Retribution has been taken out of the hands of the injured party. Punishment is now in the hands of the state. Retribution now is no longer about revenge, but the unfair advantage taken by the aggressor, and to a certain degree an attempt in civil law to return the injured party to its original state through restitution by the payment of damages.
So, while we may be beyond an eye for an eye, in a certain sense, punishment and restitution still proceed from the same approach. There is a focus on restoring right order.
But what Jesus asks goes way beyond this?