Leviticus 19:2
Matthew 5:39, 48
“Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
“But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil… be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
St. Thomas Aquinas put together a collection of a number of ancient Church Fathers’ commentaries on the Gospels. It is called the Golden Chain. Each short section from the Gospels has multiple quotes from the Church Fathers. These are four quotes from the Golden Chain for this section of the gospel:
1. For without this command [,the commandment to love your enemy], the commands of the Law could not stand. For if according to the Law we begin, all of us, to render evil for evil, we shall all become evil, since they that hurt [others] abound. But if according to Christ we resist […] evil, though they that are evil be not [changed], yet they that are good remain good.
2. Thus our Lord by doing away [with] all retaliation, cuts off the beginnings of sin. So: the Law corrects faults, the Gospel removes their occasions.
3. “Hate your enemy” – [is only] a concession to the weak.
4. The utmost perfection of love cannot go beyond the love of enemies [,for that is the greatest action], therefore as soon as the Lord has bid us love our enemies, He proceeds, “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
These four quotes are just a small fraction of what is available in this Golden Chain. I chose these because they are, quite simply, brilliant. Let me start with the first two, because they have a direct connection:
Because of this love that Jesus has put into us, we are able to look evil in the face and overcome it. We cannot overcome it by retaliation, by doing evil, an eye for an eye. But we overcome it by standing in a way that does one of two things: makes evil back down; or, makes it turn even worse. But as long as we stand in this attitude of “no retaliation,” evil cannot succeed. Oh, in the short term maybe there is some success on the part of evil. But in the long term, the fact that we stand strong and safe in the good will make us win.
I am not saying this will be an easy project. The inclination to walk away from persecution, or evil, or any other slight that we think has come our way does not come as the normal action of our human heart. We want to defend ourselves. We are taught to defend ourselves. But when it is something regarding evil, and sin, and very clearly something against God – because we are for God… We need to back down, not turn our tails and run, but back down and learn to love even in persecution.
Honestly, this is one of the parts of the gospel I really don’t like. Part of me wants to stand and defend and fight back. After all, it’s about me! Isn’t that right?… No. It’s about God, and the fact that we are called to be his witnesses.
Look at the third quote again: “‘Hate your enemy’ – (is only) a concession to the weak.” Jesus said love your neighbor, but hate your enemy was one of the ways that the law was being applied by the Jewish nation. He insists that we must love our enemy as well. In this interesting comment out of the Golden Chain, hating your enemy is really a sign of weakness! Does it really take more strength to love an enemy? I think it does. And I think it’s a very hard thing to do.
And this takes us right into the last quote that I think bears repeating fully: “The utmost perfection of love cannot go beyond the love of enemies (for that is the greatest action), therefore as soon as the Lord has bid us love our enemies, He proceeds, “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The challenge to be perfect that Jesus gives us can never be met fully, because only God is perfect! This is the last and greatest challenge to the Christian life. Let me repeat that. This is the last and greatest challenge to the Christian life. We are called to live into the perfection that is God. Jesus showed us the way to do that when he died on the cross and forgave those who were killing him.
I recall the words of St. Paul Miki from Japan. He was crucified. But while he was dying he made a final statement, not just a statement, but a declaration, not of defiance, but of love: he said he forgave the Emperor of Japan, and all those who were persecuting the early Christians in Japan.
How many times have I looked back on my own priesthood and realized I failed to live to that kind of example? How many times have I held inside myself some frustration or anger and failed to love those who I PERCEIVED had wronged ME – as if I were the important one? If there was any wrong that was done, it was not done against me, for I deserve the criticism for all the times I have failed my Lord Jesus. But if there was wrong done to the name of Christ, and I failed to turn away the foolishness of my own wrath, I have failed Jesus.
Our first reading contains a line that goes well with the closing of our gospel. I know it is something you have heard from me a number of times. It is the call to holiness, it is something we cannot, that we dare not set aside. The Lord said through Moses “be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” And Jesus, our Lord and God said “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
(Pause,) I have purchased a number of copies of a book by a rather young bishop – well, he’s younger than me. I have read it, and I like it. The title of the book is: “Letter to a Suffering Church: a bishop speaks on the sexual abuse crisis”. I purchased them for anyone who is interested. They are in the back of the church. Please feel free to take one if you would like. If we run out of copies, I will order some more. This book is the best response I have read to the suffering that the church is undergoing because of the sins of some of its leaders.
And, lastly… These calls to holiness and perfection that the readings this weekend give us are great calls to ready ourselves for Lent. Lent begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Father Bisbee will have the Masses here at Saint Mary at 8 AM and Noon. I will have the Masses at Saints Peter and Paul at 6:30 and 8:30 in the morning, and a bilingual mass at 6:30 in the evening.
So we pray. Lord Jesus you have given us the perfect example through your model of the cross of how we are called to live in holiness regardless of what comes. Help us to perfect your holiness in us, that we may be witnesses before the world of what it truly means to be holy as you are holy, to be perfect as you are perfect. We need your help in this world, in this day, in this time.
Your body, the church, is bruised – even broken – because of the failure to live in holiness and be an example of holiness to the world. During this Lent transform us that we may be solid witnesses to all those around us of what it means to claim the name: Christian. Amen.