7th Sunday in OT / A / 2020
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
For the last few weeks I have been preaching on the Old Testament text, the first reading of the Mass. I usually concentrate on the New Testament—but today’s first reading is so compelling, and so much like the New Testament—and the teaching of Jesus—that we Christians can learn something from this Jewish text.
It’s taken from 19th chapter of the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus is part of the Torah—we call it the "Pentateuch," the first "five books" of the Bible. The Torah is fundamental to Jewish thought and culture—the rock, the foundation, the cornerstone upon which Judaism is built. We usually refer to it as "the Law," though as you can see from our reading today, the Torah is much more than that.
The Book of Leviticus refers to the levites—the priests, the priestly class. Thus, much of Leviticus has to do with temple ritual, with sacrifices, with things clean and unclean, with taboos and moral guidelines.
It was precisely this, the practices and customs of Israel, that set them apart from the other nations.
You know, today we value "inclusiveness" so much that we might have a hard time understanding the Israelite notion of being "set apart," not like the other nations.
Leviticus, then, is about the "otherness" of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors.
But there is a deeper point to all of this: the otherness of Israel was meant to reflect the "otherness" of God. God is "other," and this "otherness" is to be holy.
In the words of Leviticus, "Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. (Kadosh) Or, in the words of Jesus, " Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
But what precisely does it mean "to be holy," to "be perfect"? Our reading today from Leviticus tells us in very concrete terms:
- You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
- Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.
- Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
- You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
And why should we act and think this way? A Jew would answer in the same way that a Christian would: because that is the way God is . . . the God who is love. The God whose sun and rain fall on the just and the unjust.
The words of Leviticus are as radical as the words of Jesus in the Gospel: "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." "Turn the other cheek."
Is this possible? With some effort. Can we take this seriously? Well, Jesus said it. Is it crazy? Yes, it is a little crazy."
Will it work? I think here of the words of G. K. Chesterton, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."
So give it a try. And be holy.