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Jesus Presents No Programme for Criminal Justice, But the Effect of Supernatural Love (7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2023-02-19)

Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ

Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

2023-02-19

Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Today’s gospel passage quotes Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, where he explains how God’s commandments in the covenant with the people of Israel have eternal significance. God does not change his mind. If he did, God would not be God, as change is a faculty within space and time. With Jesus Christ, the commandments in what we today call the Old Testament, however, are fulfilled and fully revealed, and extended to all peoples and nations, at all times, who want communion with the one and true God. This has been the ultimate goal of God’s stepwise actions in history.

The Jewish law, the Law of Moses, consisted by three parts. First, there was the “political law”, regulating justice in the Israeli society, e.g., contract law, family law and criminal law. Secondly, we had the ritual law, the law of worship, regulating the sabbath, circumcision, food prescriptions, and temple sacrifice. And thirdly, there was the moral law, i.e., the “classical” Ten commandments.

With the arrival of Jesus Christ, two of the three parts of the law were fulfilled, “overplayed”. They had achieved their purpose: to form a people of outwardly visible righteousness, through a distinguished religious and social order, witnessing to the world about the one and true God; a people, in and through which God could enter the world.

The “political law” can thus be replaced by different national, secular laws whose legitimacy of course hangs on their service to the truth. But the mission of building one nation is completed as faith extends to all nations.

The ritual law is also “overplayed”, with Jesus appearing as the true sacrifice, the eternal priest, the living temple and the real sabbath rest. Through his death and resurrection, all worship to reconcile humanity to God now will take place in the Church, the New Israel. The signs and symbols of the Old covenant are fulfilled in the New and eternal covenant where that, which the signs had pointed forward towards, now openly stands in the centre: God’s true and final liberation of us. Now we understand why St. Paul constantly emphasises how the Mosaic law is unable to save us: its political and ritual parts were only precursors to the one who can work out salvation: Jesus Christ.

The third part of the Law, the moral, however remains intact. It is the “instruction manual” for being human, engraved in the natural order of creation itself, no matter time, nation and culture. But in the light of God’s fulfilment of everything in Christ, the moral commandments now obtain real life, flesh and blood. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear the Legislator explaining in his own words, without intermediation, what he really has intended by his commandments. This is the implication when Jesus repeats: “You have learnt how it was said … But I say this to you”.

And Jesus – in contrast to the prejudice about him as a liberal, almost “hippie” rabbi – raises the bar by sharpening the commandments: We shall not only avoid things that directly are violations of God’s will. We shall strive for our hearts, inner persons, to actively align to God’s positive will.

Those claiming that God does not make demands on us, thus lacking expectations of us, find no support in God’s Son. He helps us to understand that God who made and loves us “is kind and merciful” as acclaimed by today’s responsorial psalm and wants what is best for us. Accordingly, we understand that God has a plan for us, which includes reconciliation with God and God’s will when we allow sin to turn us away from God.

Jesus’s first example in today’s gospel is often misunderstood. The rule of “Eye for eye” did not uphold a brutal, “wild west”-style society, but aimed at a proportionality between crime and punishment to avoid revenge motives in the strive for justice, as was described in our first reading from Leviticus. Jesus is not formulating a programme for criminal justice to stop society from punishing crime. Instead, he safeguards the real meaning, the inner core of truth, in the Old Testament rule; viz., that vengeance never must characterise our relations to others.

Jesus’s second example, love of the enemy, puts the power to judge in its Biblical sense solely with God. It is of course not a ban on moral judgments, but a prohibition against one human rewarding or punishing another human soul. Our rights in the natural order do not depend upon our religious beliefs or how we succeed spiritually or morally, but on the mere fact that all humans are created in the image of God, no matter acknowledgement of, or relation to, God. This, contrary to ideas linking human rights to people’s belonging to a certain religion, as done in Islam. Our eternal destination is up to God, who gives us clear clues, of which we can and should remind each other. But the decision is God’s own.

By his requirement that we love our enemy, Jesus shows how a true accomplishment of the commandments in God’s moral law at once is, and demands, supernatural, divine love; God’s will of our best and gift of himself for that. If we operate only with the means of the natural order, i.e., only with our natural faculties and abilities, e.g., to be nice in a normal way, we will act like “tax collectors” and “pagans”; as can be expected from anyone who only sharpens up. But Jesus tells us to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect”, i.e., to be holy, completely dedicated to serve God.

Now we can see that instead of being external regulations, God’s moral commandments describe a more profound vocation to personal holiness; invite us to be transformed inside out, to allow God to fight sin at the root and to grow his kingdom of peace and true joy through us. The true meaning of the commandments is the true, existential freedom; to become the one God has willed, to “belong to Christ” as described by our second reading from First Corinthians.

This is not a stoic project of individual performance. No, in his fulfilment and enlargement of the commandments of the Mosaic law, Jesus, apart from revealing and explaining their true purpose, makes one very significant and fully decisive addition: of himself, God’s incarnation in human flesh and soul who enters our world to fully comply with the whole Law; with us, for us and in us. This accomplishment is the divine love manifested in Jesus’s life, death and resurrection and made possible for us to share by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the bound between the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. Faith, lived through good works, opens us to this gift, nourished by the unchanging teachings of the Catholic Church, directly founded, and given her authority by Christ; and by her seven sacraments.

Through and in Jesus Christ, God both visibly explains the true vocation underlying the Jewish Law and gives everyone who believes what he or she needs to live it: God’s gift of his own, divine life. Already here in space and time. If we just say our “yes”. Amen.

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