Our readings for today remind us of our call to holiness. Leviticus tells us, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy” (19: 2). Saint Paul tell us “Do you not know that you are the temple of God” (1 Cor. 3: 16)? Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5: 48). But what does it mean to be Holy? Our Gospel comes from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount from which Jesus is crafting a vision for our moral behavior.
In today’s passage, Matthew presents Jesus’ understanding of the Law of Retaliation and the Law of Love. Jesus sets the bar is high with the examples he gives. His command “Do not resist the evildoer” was meant to break the cycle of reciprocity. It requires of us to surrender of our right to self-defense, to allow personal insult and to respond to hostile encounters with goodness. “Love your enemy” is Jesus’ most difficult and important command. This is the Hallmark of Christian life. It requires of us to break the cycle of violence, to let go of getting even and our pride, so that we can become vulnerable and meet our enemies with love.
What would implementing these look like in our world? Think about our nation’s partisan political situation, our inflamed racial tensions or our immigration situation. Those examples are far from situations being met with goodness or treating our enemies with love. And yet we are called to a holiness that embodies that goodness and love toward others.
Jesus tell us, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” But who can be perfect? When it comes to human behavior, we can never reach perfection given our finite and sinful nature. Loving our enemies is hard. Not resisting evildoers is against our nature. Is Jesus setting us up for failure here? Well, the Hebrew word for “perfect” (tam) contains the notion of wholeness. We need to think about Jesus’ call to perfection as a call to “wholeness”, or in other words, to be all that God created us to be.
Jesus was the example of how to live these laws, especially on the way to the cross. He does not resist the evildoers. He allows personal insult. He shows love for his enemies and prays for his persecutors. Holiness is about a relationship with God and trying to embody compassion as Jesus did. Try as we may, we will fall short in our efforts follow Jesus’ example. But a holiness of perfection comes not in errorless attempts, but rather in being whole-ly who we are, flawed and loved, so that we can know ourselves and return compassion to the world. As we approach the season of Lent this week, let us consider the ways that God is calling us into the holiness of wholeness.