Be Set Apart for God
Gospel Reflection for February 19, 2023 - Mt 5:38-48
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I tell you that you should not offer resistance to injury; if a man strikes thee on thy right cheek, turn the other cheek also towards him;
if he is ready to go to law with thee over thy coat, let him have it and thy cloak with it;
if he compels thee to attend him on a mile’s journey, go two miles with him of thy own accord.
Give to him who asks, and if a man would borrow from thee, do not turn away.
You have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thy enemy.
But I tell you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute and insult you,
that so you may be true sons of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and equally on the good, his rain fall on the just and equally on the unjust.
If you love those who love you, what title have you to a reward? Will not the publicans do as much?
If you greet none but your brethren, what are you doing more than others? Will not the very heathen do as much?
But you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:38-48 Ronald Knox Translation)
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Our Lord continues his use of the rabbinic device of hyperbole in his shifting of the Law from mere outward acts, as commonly understood by the Scribes and Pharisees, to the heart. Elsewhere, Scripture tells us: “Not where man’s glance falls, falls the Lord’s choice; men see but outward appearances, he reads the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7) And again: “Thou hast no mind for sacrifice, burnt-offerings, if I brought them, thou wouldst refuse; here, O God, is my sacrifice, a broken spirit; a heart that is humbled and contrite thou, O God, wilt never disdain.” (Ps 51:18-19) The physical actions described by Christ are not meant to be wholly literal or particular prescriptions but symbols for a conversion of heart, using exaggeration to make more explicit the meaning of His teaching and the kinds of acts that express a pure heart. As St. Augustine explains,
The things which are done by the Saints in the New Testament profit for examples of understanding those Scriptures which are modelled into the form of precepts. Thus we read in Luke; Whoso smiteth thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also. (Luke 6:29.) Now there is no example of patience more perfect than that of the Lord; yet He, when He was smitten, said not, ‘Behold the other cheek,’ but, If I have spoken amiss, accuse me wherein it is amiss; but if well, why smitest thou me? (John 18:23.) hereby shewing us that that turning of the other cheek should be in the heart. (Catena Aurea)
“If I am not in the state of grace, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” (St. Joan d’Arc)
The goal of every human action, springing from our God-given nature, is happiness, the perfect and whole possession of truth, goodness and beauty. Ultimately, then, happiness consists only in union with God; but how can we achieve this union? The answer to this question goes to the very heart of salvation history and is the true purpose of God’s revelation. In the consummation of history, God gave us the answer: Himself, Jesus Christ. Only by imitating Him, participating in His divine life through the Sacraments and emptying ourselves in love by sharing the Gospel with others “in truth and charity” (2 Jn 1:3) can we be truly united to God and find perfect happiness. This is the real meaning of Christ’s command to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect, an echo of God’s desire as given to Moses in the first reading today: “You must be men set apart, as I am set apart, I, the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:2)
To be perfect, to find happiness, means to be set apart from the world – to be holy, consecrated for God like the sacred vessels of the Temple. This can be deeply unsettling, more than we may realize at first glance. But who could read Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and not see how truly foolish, impractical, even dangerous it can seem to the world? That it can be blessed to mourn or be persecuted, that marriage is permanent and exclusive, that evil should be repaid with suffering and charity – who lives like this, and who would want to? This is certainly not the image of virtue and heroism we receive from the media, from literature, and from the examples of those acclaimed by the world; rather, the world mocks the Way of Christ as childish, naïve, wasteful, irrational, and too good to be true. For the worldly, St. Paul’s challenge represents an insurmountable obstacle:
And you must not fall in with the manners of this world; there must be an inward change, a remaking of your minds, so that you can satisfy yourselves what is God’s will, the good thing, the desirable thing, the perfect thing. (Rom 12:2)
Nevertheless, especially in cultures which have known Christ for two thousand years, who can see the examples of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who voluntarily gave up his life to save a man whom he had never met, or St. Teresa of Calcutta, who treated everyone she met, even the lepers thrown in the garbage by their own family or Western politicians who promote the murder of unborn children, with the same love and dignity as she would to Christ Himself, and not be moved by it? As St. Augustine wrote, these saintly examples, mirroring those of Our Lord and enabled by His grace alone, show us how to be perfect, as God is perfect. In this way, Christ did not correct the Law, which nowhere taught to hate our enemy; rather, He repeated the common wisdom of the world, to hate those who hate us. (Gloss, Catena Aurea) To reject evil itself, not only when it is done to us or our loved ones but in every circumstance, and to do only good to all – this is the true meaning of holiness, the light of the world and the salt of the Earth. Only by willing and doing the good can we be made perfectly good in Christ. For this reason, Our Lord taught: “The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love you bear one another.” (Jn 13:35) The Church and her Tradition help us to apply these principles prudently, showing Christ’s use of hyperbole in them yet without limiting their power:
Therefore, He says not, ‘Give all things to him that asks;’ but, Give to every one that asketh; that you should only give what you can give honestly and rightly. For what if one ask for money to employ in oppressing the innocent man? What if he ask your consent to unclean sin? We must give then only what will hurt neither ourselves or others, as far as man can judge; and when you have refused an inadmissible request, that you may not send away empty him that asked, shew the righteousness of your refusal; and such correction of the unlawful petitioner will often be a better gift than the granting his suit. (St. Augustine, Catena Aurea)