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 Be Perfect!

Ordinary 7   Year A

A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
www.hebrewcatholic.org.nz

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St. Matthew 5: 38 — 48

 

Introduction

It is very easy to listen to chapter 5 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and to get the feeling that Jesus is unfolding an extreme form of morality; one which is hardly likely to “take on” because it seems so radical and impractical; This begs the question — Well, how can any of us measure up? How can we achieve such a level of perfect morality? In fact, with all due respect to our Lord, how can we carry out His final command which sums up everything in this section:

“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect”. It is only one question, but it has two answers: We can’t and we can!

We had better take a careful look at the real message Jesus Messiah is proclaiming. We do this first by looking at it in two parts. Then we move to a broad review of the issues involved.

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Reflections on our text

Verses 38 — 42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth.’

But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn
the other one to him as well.

If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand him your cloak as well.

Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go
with him for two miles.

Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your
back on one who wants to borrow.”

In a primitive society, with no police force, retaliation to acts of
violence and false accusations was usually made by the person
concerned. The Mosaic Law tried to keep revenge within bounds
by commanding that no more satisfaction be taken than the
injury suffered. This application of the Law was the most humane
practice followed by any nation at that time. This is vividly
expressed through the image of eye and tooth. In similar imagery
of the cheek, our Lord expresses his principle and gives examples
from everyday life, through which He teaches the ideal Christian
attitude: a Christian should not seek revenge; he should be patient
when injury is done to his own person. The right way to conquer
the wicked is by charity, not by retaliation.    (Based on R. Cox)

Many of us would say that, at best, we could acknowledge the beautiful sentiments in this teaching. However, we may also want to very honest and admit that when we ourselves are the victim, or the person concerned:

—    Can I really be expected to offer no resistance to evil?
—    Do I have to hand over things to anyone who has the audacity
        to say they want my possessions.
—    Do I have to cap any obligations by doubling what I am bound to do?
—    Do I have to lend, or worse, give money and other things to people
        who didn’t bother to work and save so they could also buy their own?

These things don’t just seem unreasonable, they seem impossible. If I am attacked by — or worse — if my child is in danger of harm by some drugged, mindless, hateful, embittered, depressed savage person, am I bound by our Lord’s command: “….. offer no resistance to one who is evil?”

Before we try to answer that, we had better hear the rest of our Lord’s injunctions.

Verses 43 — 48

“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,

that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he
makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain
to fall on the just and the unjust.

 
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you
have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?

And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about
that? Do not the pagans do the same? 

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the final illustration from the Jewish moral code. In the previous
paragraph our Lord told his listeners to endure injury, not seek revenge.
He now gives the perfect attitude, the sublime Christian ideal: ‘love your
enemies.’ It must be as positive and real as the love of a neighbour; it
seeks no return of love, and functions, even when spurned. No natural
love could do this; it must then be supernatural, a sharing in and
imitation of the love of God for all men without distinction. The
Fatherhood of God is the origin and basis of the common and universal
brotherhood of men. Charity is both the vital force and distinctive virtue
of Christ’s kingdom.

The phrase ‘hate your enemy’ is not found in the Mosaic Law; It was,
however, common Jewish teaching. Their national isolation, to avoid
contamination from the Gentiles, had led to interpretation of ‘neighbour’
in the Mosaic law as a fellow Jew; all the Gentiles were classed as
‘enemies’ and sinners. Such a practice was, of course, not confined to the
Jews, nor just to ancient times. We need only to look around us to see
the ever present danger of restricting whom we can accept as a
“neighbour”. Our Lord, in the parable of the Good Samaritan re-defines
‘neighbour'; here he breaks down any distinction between friend and
enemy, by demanding charity to real personal enemies, Jew or Gentile.  
                                                                                       (Based on R. Cox)

This teaching, by our Lord, about “loving your neighbour” is really very demanding! Again we may be tempted to comment: It sounds lovely, but how realistic is it? How can I spend my whole life helping other people in need?

And then, to be told by our Lord, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect”. This seems to push us over the boundaries of reality. God is perfect — so how can I be perfect unless I am God?
  
A Bit of a Quandry

Not everybody would present the difficulties in our text as we have in the above comments;
and we acknowledge there are other approaches which could be taken. One thing is certain: we must reflect on the challenge Jesus has put before us, and review our behaviour in light of His teaching. A much admired commentary makes this statement about the principle of non-resistance and yielding:

“The rationalizations of the words of Jesus do not show that
his words are impractical or exaggerated, but simply that the
Christian world has never been ready and is not ready now to
live according to this ethic.”       (Jerome Bible Commentary 1968)

With due respect to this most prestigious work, we would like to share our Hebrew Catholic perception of this wonderful passage from St. Matthew.

Doing The Will of God

In our passage, Jesus — as a rather orthodox rabbi — draws examples from the Sacred Scriptures known as the Torah, meaning the “Words” or “Teaching” of God, also referred to as the “Law”. To the Hebrew listeners, He is talking about obeying God in the true spirit of God’s teaching. Each of the commands in the Torah — the ten Great Commandments, plus the other    examples — all express God’s Divine Will. Each command is a “mitzvah” (plural mitzvot, rhyming with the English “vote”). One is expected to observe each law or mitzvah in careful detail. In doing so, one seeks the only reward permissible — the greater glory of God. By performing the observance of God’s commands, one is blessed by increased union with God. The stronger this bond, the more ardently one then wishes to share this blessing with others. In this way, knowing, loving and serving God are all increased in the world. Modern Jewish practice is very active in encouraging members (personally or in group projects) to “do mitzvot”. In this way they seek to honour God, come closer to Him, and share His love in the world. We can much admire this wonderful and holy practice! Our understanding of this should bury forever the misguided Christian criticism that Jews “do good” only to keep the Commandments so as to gain personal advantage.

This Biblical understanding of obeying the Torah — the Law — arises from God’s own instruction to His People.

“The LORD your God, shall you follow, and him you shall fear,
his commandment shall you observe, and his voice shall you heed,
serving him and holding fast to him.”      Deuteronomy 15: 5 (see also 11: 22).

The word “follow” in this text indicates that God has laid before His People Israel a path to follow, a way of life to be lived. God requires His people to “observe” His teaching which He presented as “Commandments”. In doing so they would “heed” His voice; “heed” meaning to concern themselves about what He taught, and pay careful attention to detail. This word “heed” came into English via old German (huren, with umlaut over the letter ‘u’.), in which it meant to be on one’s guard, to cherish, and to beware of substitutes or imitations.

The above verse is one of many examples throughout the Hebrew Scriptures where God provides, one could say, the “formula” for remaining in union with Him. It entails:

(1)   beholding carefully what He requires — i.e. listening;

(2)   observing or carrying out what is instructed — i.e. obeying; and

(3)   holding fast or clinging to Him — i.e. living in His Presence.
        This is the essence and critically important understanding of mitzvah.
        Our Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, was the perfect model for us to
        emulate, especially in “doing mitzvot” — doing the Will of God.

Our Lord’s Expectation

All of this emphasises very clearly how our Lord chose to focus His listeners on their obligation to observe the Law of God sincerely with all their heart and soul. As in all religions there were those who paraded their virtue by making sure their precise observance could not be missed. Such actions were, of course, to draw attention to themselves and their supposed holiness.

Obviously that kind of behaviour cannot be “observance” of God’s Law — cannot be “performing mitzvot,” as Jews say, because it is neither for the glory of God, nor to be at one with God’s Divine Will.

In our passage, Jesus is indeed talking about mitzvot! He is not delivering an academic, theoretical, spectacular or controversial sermon to arouse attention. He is sharing with His followers, the understanding they must have to be part of His Kingdom; He is showing them how to observe God’s Divine Will correctly. He speaks not only of the Law of Moses, but adds His own levels of observance and makes them mandatory. These are the obligations to be lovingly observed if we are to be members of His Kingdom.

The early Church took this teaching of our Lord very seriously. St. James, Jewish Bishop of Jerusalem wrote:

Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts,
you of two minds.
                                    (James 4: 8).

He was echoing the Prophets and our Lord’s own instruction by reminding the first Christians in his care, that they must remain close to Jesus by observing His mitzvot, His commands carefully. In Jewish teaching, mitzvot are about being connected, being united, with the Law Giver; being where you belong — beside God.

In a robust Faith which can survive in the hurley-burley of life in our world, belonging to the Household of God is not just about saying:

•    I gave my heart to Jesus.
•    I asked God to come into my life.

We are called to listen to the Word of God — Christ Jesus, our Torah, and follow Him. We are called to cherish His commands, His mitzvot, and observe them meticulously: to find out what He wants done, and do it! That is what gives glory to God, and purifies us to live in His Presence.

Looking Into a Mirror

The whole of chapter 5 (which includes the passage we are examining here) portrays a way of life raised, in fact restored to heavenly standards. Our Lord calls on His followers to embrace it, despite their feelings of inadequacy. His Sermon depicts a vision of restoration, of a kingdom worthy of God, but also worthy of each member of the Household of God.

We take a look at what Jesus lays down, and feel, frankly, we can’t make the grade. In a sense that is why He presents it to us so forthrightly — to let us see what we could be like if we observe His decrees. But note, this is not to leave us devastated that we can’t measure up, can’t of ourselves meet His standards.

Christ Is Our Torah — Our Perfection.

In our Gospel text, Jesus unites the Torah with His own standards. He said He had come not to destroy the Law, the Torah, but to fulfil it — to bring every little portion of it to perfection. (Matthew 5: 17 — 20). As we have seen He did this in Himself and His own life and teaching. Thus we can say that He is, Himself, the Word of God for us, i.e. our Torah. And we can say equally, knowing how He fulfilled every item of the Torah, that Christ is also our Perfection.

Of ourselves, we can’t observe the Divine Law promulgated by Jesus, either in the Torah or the Sermon on the Mount — the Beatitudes. Jesus confronted His listeners, as He confronts us, to focus attention on the Living Word among us — that is Himself, Christ Jesus. Just as God’s People Israel were united to God by observing the mitzvot — the Laws, and thus gave Glory to God, so we are united to Christ, God’s Word, by observing, as best we can, the Laws of His Kingdom.

United to Christ the Word of God

Only by doing our best to remain in union with our Lord — who is the Divine Word, the Torah — only be seeking daily to observe His Will can we measure up to the standards of His Kingdom. But the good news is that in Him we can share in the perfection, the fulfilment of God’s Law. That is why He made so much of our abiding in Him, and He in us.

That is the secret, as it were. That is the way through the otherwise impossible barrier of our own imperfection.

In this world we are going to be confronted with all of the “impossible-to-answer” questions listed at the beginning of our Reflections. Jesus points us to the real answer which is nothing less than His Return to complete the perfecting of His Kingdom, at the end of time.

Meanwhile

Despite the “unrealistic” appearance, at first reading, of our Lord’s standards, they are nevertheless what He laid down. We are required to do our best to observe them to the greater glory of God. In that way, as members of His Household, we will reflect “the family likeness”.        (Meier)

Despite all the personal, national and international issues of trying to uphold such a model of purity and goodness in contemporary life, we must keep our spiritual ears and eyes focussed on the consummation of the world, when Christ our King will bring His Words, His Teaching, His Torah to their final perfection.

Despite all the apparent impossibility of applying the Law laid down by Christ, we are living in the end-time of Salvation History and must try to reflect end-time perfection. This, we have learnt, can only make sense when it is presented as Christ the Word, Christ our Torah, Christ our Way to eternal perfection and completeness in His Kingdom. To His Glorious Return we continue to direct our every hope and effort.

Shalom!

 

Further Reading

For those who would like a detailed study resource
on the readings for Sunday, please visit:

Agape Bible Study — Ordinary 7 ― Year A

If you require only the section on the Gospel reading,
just scroll down the page.

To view all the material on the Agape website please visit:

www.agapebiblestudy.com

This website is highly recommended:

 

 Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature

(Mark 16: 15)

The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!

Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
so, remain close to Him. The following are only examples illustrating
how you can note the gems the Holy Spirit highlights for your on-going
reflection.

     Be Perfect!    

            Ordinary 7   Year A             St. Matthew 5: 38 to 48

1.    In the Torah, e.g. Deuteronomy 11: 18 — 22 and 13: 5) God, through
       His servant Moses, commanded His people to “remember” His   
       Commandments, i.e. keep them in memory, treasure them, teach
       them, ponder them, stay close to them by whatever means they
       could, and observe them, and thus to “cling to God”.

2.    Jesus promised He had come to fulfil the Torah, not to destroy it.
       Thus He joined His whole mission to the meaning and purpose of
       God’s Commandments.

       As we have learnt, He is God’s Word in the flesh. At His
       Transfiguration, His
Father declared from the heavens, “This is
       My chosen Son: Listen to Him”.
Jesus was, in this way, proclaimed
       to be the very mouth and voice of God.
His Word is therefore Law.
       He is indeed our Torah.

3.    Though we are weak and vulnerable, we can give glory to God
       and remain united to Jesus Messiah by attempting, as best we can,
       to observe all He has taught us. In this way we can share in His
       perfection until He comes again.

Psalm 26: 6

I will wash my hands in innocence,
so that I may process around you altar, Lord.

[Recited by the priest as his hands are washed at the offertory in the Traditional Latin Mass.]

Amen.     Come Lord Jesus!                     Revelation 22: 21

Let us pray for one another that we will listen to Jesus, as God the Father
commanded
— not to the unbelieving world — and have confidence that in our
efforts, God will
empower us through His Son to love and seek His own
perfection — His wholeness and completeness — and to rest in it as His
special gift to us.

Shalom!

Click here for a printable copy of these Reflections

 

Matthew 5: 38 — 48

Ordinary 7     Year A

New American Bible 

 

38     25  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye
         and a tooth for a tooth.’

39     But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
         When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn
         the other one to him as well.

40     If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
         hand him your cloak as well.

41     Should anyone press you into service for one mile, 26 
         go with him for two miles.

42     Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your
         back on one who wants to borrow.

43     27  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love
         your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

44     But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those
         who persecute you,

45     that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he          
         makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes
         rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

46     For if you love those who love you, what recompense
         will you have? Do not the tax collectors 28  do the same?

47     And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual
         about that? Do not the pagans do the same? 29

48     So be perfect, 30 just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

25 [38-42] See Lev 24:20. The Old Testament commandment was meant to moderate vengeance; the punishment should not exceed the injury done. Jesus forbids even this proportionate retaliation. Of the five examples that follow, only the first deals directly with retaliation for evil; the others speak of liberality.

26 [41] Roman garrisons in Palestine had the right to requisition the property and services of the native population.

27 [43-48] See Lev 19:18. There is no Old Testament commandment demanding hatred of one’s enemy, but the “neighbor” of the love commandment was understood as one’s fellow countryman. Both in the Old Testament ( Psalm 139:19-22) and at Qumran (1QS 9:21) hatred of evil persons is assumed to be right. Jesus extends the love commandment to the enemy and the persecutor. His disciples, as children of God, must imitate the example of their Father, who grants his gifts of sun and rain to both the good and the bad.

28 [46] Tax collectors: Jews who were engaged in the collection of indirect taxes such as tolls and customs. See the note on Mark 2:14.

29 [47] Jesus’ disciples must not be content with merely usual standards of conduct; see Matthew 5:20 where the verb “surpass” (Greek perisseuo) is cognate with the unusual (perisson) of this verse.

30 [48] Perfect: in the gospels this word occurs only in Matthew, here and in Matthew 19:21. The Lucan parallel (Matthew 6:36) demands that the disciples be merciful.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition (c)
2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington D.C.
and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of
the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in
writing from the copyright owner.

 

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