Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18
Leviticus 19 is a miscellaneous collection of laws, some of them thought to come from a primitive form of the Decalogue. Verses 1-2 serve as an introduction to the whole collection, and therefore they fittingly preface verses 17-18 in today’s excerpt.
Holiness means separateness, distinctiveness, from the world. It was first of all the quality of YHWH. Then, by making Israel his people, YHWH made them holy, too. This is not expressed here but is presupposed by the context of the Old Testament Law, given as it is after the exodus; it is however made clear, as far as the Christian Church is concerned, in the second reading: “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Holiness is first of all indicative: You are holy. But then it is also an imperative: You shall be holy. The distinctiveness of the people of God is to be shown in, not established through, their behavior. This behavior is summed up in the command to love the neighbor. In the Old Testament and in Judaism, “neighbor” meant fellow Israelite. Jesus reaffirmed the centrality of this commandment but widened the concept in today’s gospel to embrace the enemy.
Responsorial Psalm: 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
This is perhaps the best known of all the thanksgiving psalms of the whole psalter. The psalmist, speaking of his own individual experience of the purpose of God, transforms his personal gratitude into a corporate hymn of praise.
What precisely that personal experience was is difficult to say, but perhaps the reference to delivery from “the Pit” (sheol) in stanza 2 suggests that he had been very ill and at the point of death.
In his own personal experience he sees mirrored the experience of Israel throughout its salvation history (see verse 7, not used in this selection). The psalm praises God for his kindness and mercy, manifested particularly in the forgiveness of sins.
Reading II: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23
The context of 1 Cor 1-4 is the divisions that afflicted the church at Corinth. People were saying, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos.” Each group boasted of the “knowledge” (gnosis) it had received from its purported leader.
Paul begins this section by reminding the Corinthians of what they already know: “Do you not know ... ?” This is not, therefore, new teaching, not a further elaboration of Paul’s foundational message, but part of his original teaching. Such divisions and such pride in the peculiar advantages possessed by each group represented a defilement of God’s temple, that is, the church.
Paul uses many images for the church (garden, building, etc.), but here he uses the image of temple for the first time in his writings. “Temple” brings out the point that the church is the place where the Spirit of God is present. The church does not consist of bricks and mortar but of people; nor is it primarily an organization or institution.
Later on, in 1 Cor 6:16-17, Paul will apply the same figure to the individual Christian. There we will learn that it is immorality that defiles the individual Christian as God’s temple; here it is disunity that defiles the whole congregation.
How does this square with Mt 16:18, which says that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against the church? Answer: Local or even regional churches (e.g., North Africa) can be destroyed.
Each local church is a manifestation in microcosm of the universal church. But the church as a whole cannot be destroyed.
In the second part of our reading (1 Cor 3:18-23), Paul brings to a head the discussion of the Corinthian cliques and divisions, and the discussion of wisdom and folly.
The knowledge (gnosis) that each group claims to possess is a purely human wisdom. True wisdom, God’s wisdom, is the Gospel of the Cross of Christ. Human wisdom leads to boasting in human leaders. The apostles are not human leaders of this sort. They are not lords over God’s people but servants of Christ and servants of his people.
There is indeed an “authority of the laity” as the Spirit-filled body, balancing the authority of the ministry. But this authority is not free and independent; it is subordinated to Christ, as Christ in turn is subordinated to God (Paul’s christology here is functional and historical, not ontological or metaphysical, as it became in later christology, in which “subordinationism” was rightly repudiated as a heresy).
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
This reading continues the Sermon on the Mount from last week. It is as we saw the part known as the “antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you.”
Here two antitheses are drawn out. The first is taken from the Torah: “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (Lev 24:19). The second is a maxim that combines the commandment to love the neighbor from our first reading with an injunction not found anywhere in the Old Testament but representing much of what is taught or assumed there, namely, that one should hate the enemies of God and of Israel.
Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament but is radicalizing it, going much further though in the same direction. For the “eye for eye” injunction was not meant to sanction revenge but to restrict it. Now Jesus rules it out altogether.
Jesus’ injunction was probably formulated in opposition to the policy of the Zealots or their predecessors, who advocated armed rebellion against the occupying Roman power. The evangelist later redirected the prohibition of vengeance, applying it to the persecutors of the Christian Church (Mt 5:44).
In the mid-twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., applied Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence to successive situations of a very different kind. But claims that have been made to enlist the support of Jesus’ teaching for violent revolution can hardly be used to support an absolute pacifism (pace Stanley Hauerwas or Richard Hays), even though that may be the vocation of Christian individuals.
Jesus was addressing his disciples, not those who had the responsibility for government. The teaching of Rom 13, which allows the state to bear the sword for the enforcement of law and the prevention of evil, still stands as part of the canon.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University