The 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 + 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 + Matthew 5:38-48
Catechism Link: CCC 2012
February 19, 2023
“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Today’s Gospel passage has three parts. The first two consist of examples that Jesus gives us. He started giving these examples last Sunday. Keep in mind, though, that Jesus prefaces all these examples by stating: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” So all these examples are illustrations of how to move from acting like the scribes and Pharisees towards acting in a way that will lead you to Heaven.
Each example follows the same pattern. Jesus starts each example by saying, “You have heard that it was said ….” Then He quotes the Old Testament to show how the scribes and Pharisees act. But in the second part, Jesus explains how His disciples will act if they want to get to Heaven. So Jesus continues each example by saying, “But I say to you ….” Then Jesus gives us a new understanding of the Law of God. In doing so, Jesus perfects the Law of God.
As Jesus gives these six examples of righteousness—one after another—they increase in their demands. They grow more and more difficult to follow, and finally culminate in the example that must have shocked half of the people listening to Jesus, and completely confused the other half. Jesus said to the crowd, “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 ….”
Why would this example have shocked and confused Jesus’ crowd? There are several reasons, the most obvious of which is that for many in ancient Israel, hating their enemies was thought to be a survival instinct.
Yet they not only applied this lesson as they looked out from Israel to other nations. They turned in on themselves. They applied this lesson against each other. Kings of Israel spent as much time and energy uniting its twelve tribes as they did fighting outsiders.
By Jesus’ day, Israel was divided into three regions: Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judah in the south. The Gospel paints a portrait of animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews in Judah. This animosity is illustrated by the shock of the Samaritan woman at the well when Jesus approaches her in kindness. It’s also illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which turns upon the novel notion of a Samaritan treating someone in Judah as a neighbor.
But the divisions of sin marched further, all the way to Calvary. Even among the Jews in Jerusalem, the various parties of power often pitted themselves against each other. The Acts of the Apostles tells how St. Paul once pitted the Sadducees and Pharisees against each other by means of their differences. By doing so, Paul escaped from the legal trial he unjustly faced.
A far more unjust trial, however, took place on Good Friday, when the innocent Son of God was declared guilty of blasphemy. He was nailed to a cross to die while “Barabbas”, the “Son of man” who had committed insurrection, was freed by the crowd. The irony of Good Friday is the logical outcome of looking for an enemy where God has given you a friend. On Good Friday, man puts God on trial, and declares God to be man’s enemy, while the whole point of the Incarnation was that man might call God his neighbor, his brother, and his Savior.
In this world below, where we are part of the “pilgrim Church”—part of the “Church militant”—we often confuse our neighbors and our enemies. The English convert G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” This is true because we are fallen children of Adam and Eve. We do not think we should be our brother’s keeper. The whole history of fallen man—from Adam versus Eve, to Cain versus Abel, to our own time and place—testifies to our sin of turning neighbors into enemies.
In this world here below, our only real enemies are the devil and his divisions of fallen angels. We need to learn that among our human family, there are no enemies, but only neighbors whom we have not loved as Jesus has.