In the lectionary commentary Feasting on the Word, New Testament professor Greg Carey tells of getting a message from his 10-year-old daughter who been chosen to be a lector at a service. She said to her father, “I have that passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? Do the other Gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other Gospels? Could you let me know, because. . .no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.”
We might think so, too, or at least we might wish that Jesus is wrong or that he meant something less literal. Unfortunately for those who wish Jesus did not mean exactly what he said, Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus did mean exactly what He said. To be a disciple means to do what Jesus said.
We have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This is said both in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24. It is meant to create boundaries for justice. The punishment can match but must not exceed the crime. We too often hear the Old Testament passages quoted when someone is trying to justify a punishment, most particularly trying to justify the death penalty. Such a person must really hate the New Testament version when we hear Jesus saying, “But what I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”
Jesus also quoted Leviticus 19: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Jewish people were to treat their own by a very high standard, and “neighbor” meant only fellow Jews. When it came to non-Jews, the standards were different. We know from the Parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus redefined neighbor to mean all fellow human beings. It had to have grated to hear Jesus quote Leviticus and centuries of belief when he followed that quote with the word “but”: “But what I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Worse, Jesus added that this is what we must do “that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”
All three of our readings lead us to ponder the same thing: holiness. To be holy is to strive to be like God. God loves all of his children; so must we. God forgives, so must we. God expresses mercy, so must we. God takes our abuse, so we must take the abuse that comes with being people of faith. This is incredibly hard, but with God’s grace it is possible.
Lent begins in two-and-a-half weeks. Today’s readings give us plenty to think about as we ponder what we might concentrate on during Lent. Lent will call us to set aside our sinfulness. It will call us to practice the sacrificial love of Jesus. It will call us to the Sacrament of Reconciliation If we really look at God, incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ, we will see love and truth.
We are called to holiness. Typically, when we think of being holy, we think in terms of being good, doing good things, and avoiding sin. This is not exactly holiness. All good people do good and avoid evil. Being holy means conforming our lives to God who is holy. Being holy is about a relationship, not about goodness. Holiness is found in honoring the purpose of Jesus’ life, preaching, death and resurrection. All of this was done to reunite us with the Father, to bring us into communion with the Father who loves us more than we can even imagine.
Our world is “all about me.” Jesus offers us a world that is all about God, but it is about God in a way that includes us. Jesus wants us to be in communion with the Father. There is a reason we call the Eucharist “Holy Communion.” Receiving the Body of Christ brings us into communion with God and thus, in God, we enter into communion with each other. It is this relationship — this communion — that makes us holy.
What Jesus asks of us may not seem reasonable. We are entitled to exact revenge, aren’t we? We are allowed to hold grudges, aren’t we? We are allowed to separate our world into “us” and “them,” aren’t we? By the way we live, it would seem that the answer to these questions is “yes.” Jesus’ answer is “no.”
As we prepare for Lent, we should ponder how we can achieve holy communion — holiness.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.