Invitation to Perfection in Holiness

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18 – 1Corinthians 3:16-23 – Matthew 5:38-48.

The theme of today’s reflection is coined from the first and last commands of the Lord given in the 1st Reading and in the Gospel reading. “Be holy, for … the Lord your God [is] Holy (Lev. 19:2) and “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). From these commands we deduce two fundamental facts about God: (1) God is Holy and (2) God is perfect. God’s holiness and perfection are to an utterly superlative degree, way beyond the comprehension of the limited human mind. While it is not possible for any human being to equal God in holiness or perfection, each one of us can be holy and perfect to a comparative degree. It is incumbent upon us to emulate Him in being as holy and as perfect as we can because He has made us in His likeness (Gen 1:27). The holiness and perfection to which we can attain as flawed human beings is revealed in the nature of the personal relationship we cultivate with our neighbour – with other people.

Now we can go on to ask ourselves: in what does this holiness and perfection required of us consist?

The First Reading (taken from the Old Testament book regarding the laws of priests and Levites) outlines what it means to be holy from a negative point of view (the don’ts). Don’t hate, for God doesn’t bear hatred for us even when we were sinners (Rom 5:8). He might well be angry with us but He does not hate, for God is love (1Jn 4:8, 16). Don’t harbour evil, for if God would mark our guilt, who would survive (Ps 130:3)? Don’t seek vengeance, for vengeance on His adversaries including the devil is God’s prerogative (cf. Nahum 1:2).

God expects us neither to hate anyone, nor to nurse hatred in our heart, and certainly not to take practical steps to avenge a wrong done to us. Instead of hating, harbouring evil and seeking vengeance, we are commanded to love. Is this possible in our daily lives? Can we realistically do this in a fallen world with so many challenges? Yes, we can: the 1st Reading tells us that by refusing to embrace evil, we become holy.

However, in today’s gospel, Jesus goes further. He gives us to understand that by doing good, we become perfect in holiness. As the Latin adage has it, “Bonum faciendum et malum vitandum” … “Good is to be done and Evil is to be avoided”. Jesus’ command to be holy is delivered from a positive point of view (the do’s). In telling us to respond to negative situations by doing good instead of evil, He stresses the importance of becoming perfect in holiness like our heavenly Father.

The old law of “an eye for an eye” (Ex 21:24) was intended originally to set a limit on the vengeance that someone wronged could take. Jesus, however, instructs us to open ourselves to absorb ill-will and to go on the counter-offensive against evil by arming ourselves with charity. Against hatred, Jesus prescribes that we ‘love’ (not necessarily ‘like’) our enemies and that we pray for our persecutors. When we deliberately follow His prescription, we find it impossible to bear grudges against people. Jesus explains these loving and prayerful behaviours in terms of the perfection of God: “for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike”. In order to stand out as followers of Christ and lovers of God, we should behave correspondingly.

The command of Christ to ‘love your enemies’ sounds extremely difficult to put into practice. How can we genuinely ‘love’ people who intend us harm, who want to destroy our families, to disgrace us and shatter our reputations, to take every last penny we have? To understate the case massively, it is certainly not easy.

You’ll be familiar with the saying, “to err is human, but to forgive is divine”. Speaking personally, I have heard people say that “they can’t forgive until God forgives the devil”. They justify themselves by adding that “the enemy sinned against their spirit, and sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable”. These are instances of the devil tempting us to twist the scriptures in order to draw us away from the grace of sanctity and perfection. The devil rejoices when he leaves us mired in sin and unforgiveness. The 2nd Reading reminds us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Whenever we bear grudges, or act on our grudges, that is when we destroy the temple of the Holy Spirit that is our body.

Do you know why it’s important that we repay evil with good? It is clear that when people hate their enemies and resent them, they end up hurting themselves far more than they hurt their enemies. Dale Carnegie wrote, “when we hate our enemies, we give them power over us – power over our sleep … power over our blood pressure, power over our health and happiness. Anyone who hates you would dance for joy if they knew how your hatred tears you apart.” Our hatred does not hurt our tormentors. Hatred passes first through our own bodies, destroying us and making our days and nights feel hellish. Hatred tells on our body (the temple of the Holy spirit) rather than on theirs. Our physical, mental and spiritual health is better when, no matter what the circumstances, we give out goodness no matter what the world throws at us.

Do you want to be holy, as God tells us to be? Then avoid doing evil or hurting others! Do you want to be perfect in holiness? Then learn to do good, and respond to evil and negativity with goodness and positivity! St. Paul urges us, “Don’t let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:21). May God help each one of us to be holy and perfect in His sight. Amen. God bless you.