Welcome back to the Sunday Mass Notes. This week we read from the Book of Leviticus, continue our study in First Corinthians and finally conclude with further study from the Sermon on the Mount from Saint Matthew. There we will see a message that Jesus gave his disciples which culminated with a statement to them that they were to be perfect. How can anyone be perfect you may ask? We will address that and other things in the Mass Notes this week.
Introduction to the First Reading:
In the first reading this week, it’s important for us to put our Old Testament hats back on and return to the culture of ancient Judaism. The first reading this week is from Leviticus Chapter 19. The Book of Leviticus is concerned with God’s giving of the Law to Moses, and especially the ecclesiastical Law concerning sacrifices, offerings, and dietary Law. One of the overall purposes of the Law was to set the Hebrew people apart from the surrounding people. God said in the previous chapter, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'I am the LORD your God. You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes” (Leviticus 18:2-3). However, the most significant purpose of the Law was to point people to the perfect sacrifice that would occur through the Lamb of God (Jesus) who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Let’s pick up with the reading today in Chapter 19.
1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 "Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. 17 You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’”(Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18)
Several points arise from the reading. First, we see that God called the Hebrew Nation to be holy or set apart from sin and dedicated to the service of the LORD. Although we have all used and heard the word “holy” lots of times in our lives it’s easy to gloss over the rich meaning of the word. In the reading God provided a simple reason why the Jews were to be holy when He said, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (v.2b). This was God’s appeal to His nature and a calling for the Hebrew nation to emulate his character. As we said above, one reason that God provided the Law was to set apart the Nation of Israel from the surrounding people. The word holy means to be set apart and the Jews were called to be a peculiar people, different from the idolaters in the pagan cultures that surrounded them. They were to be holy because they were God’s chosen people and were to reflect His image of holiness to the world around them. As we saw two weeks ago in our study of the Sermon on the Mount, the concept of being “set apart” was to fulfil special purposes for God, not to live an ordinary existence. The Jews were set apart for the purpose to be salt and light to those around them.
Second, God set a high standard of love for one’s neighbor. This standard would have been foreign to the people from the nations surrounding Israel. The Jews, and by application all believers including us, were not to hate our neighbor in their mind (v.17a), but were instead called to love their neighbors as themselves (v.18c), and were not to take vengeance against them (v.18a). He didn’t mean that we had to just love our literal neighbors, but everyone. God set this high standard of loving behavior in stone, in the Law of the land for the Hebrew people. Which of us hasn’t hated our neighbor at one time or another?
Third, God said that the Jews were not to take vengeance against their neighbors. This wasn’t directed to soldiers in battle because God provided clear direction to the Jews regarding those matters (see for example Deuteronomy 2:34, 3:6, and especially Deuteronomy 20:16-18). This was directed to all of God’s people who were given these specific examples of how to live out one’s life in a status as “set apart.” Saint Paul confirmed that the admonition against taking retribution in Romans and quoted the exact verse from Leviticus. “’Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Although we may feel like we want to get even with someone for hurting us, God has given us a universal calling not to take action against a “neighbor” that has wronged us.
Back when I lived in a suburb in a large Midwestern city, I developed a strong dislike for the neighbor whose back yard adjoined the back of my own house. This particular neighbor, who I didn’t even know, had a dog that he used to let outside to do his business. This dog would then bark endlessly until the neighbor let him back inside the house. This barking dog used to drive me absolutely crazy and as a result I developed a strong dislike of my neighbor. One day out of the blue, I came up with a novel approach to solve the problem. The next time he let the dog out to bark (I mean to let him do his business!) I walked over to the fence and called to the dog, “here boy.” I kept calling and sure enough, the dog came running over to the fence, jumped up wanted to be petted. I made friends with the dog that day and as a result found that I no longer disliked my neighbor either! In fact, after I moved away I actually missed my doggy friend. Why did it take me so many years to figure that out? This was a case where love did truly conquer the conflict with my neighbor. Now if I could just makes friends with my current neighbor’s Akita!
How about you? Do you have some difficult people in your life to whom God is calling you to love, even though you don’t have feelings of love for them? If you are His child, He will give you the ability to grow in loving even your enemies. Pray to God and ask Him to change your heart.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
The second reading this week is a continuation of the study from last week in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In this reading, Saint Paul explains the concept of personal holiness. As you read try to imagine the sense that a First Century Jew would have had when Paul mentioned the phrase “temple of God” and how that would flavor their reading of this text.
16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are. 18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, "He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS"; 20 and again, "THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS." 21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:16-23)
For a First Century Jew the temple in Jerusalem was the holiest and most sacred place on earth. We know from Jesus’ ministry to the Jews that they had a difficult time understanding how the human body could be a temple (John 2:19). This was especially true not only because of the grandeur of the temple but also because the whole Jewish religious system revolved around the temple. But, when Jesus ushered in the church age he fulfilled the prophecy of Ezekiel. “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). Our bodies are a holy temple, or shrine. Later in the same Letter Paul said, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”(1 Corinthians 6:19). We are called to be holy because our bodies are a living temple of God.
In the next section, Paul prescribed humility for healing the divisions that existed in the Corinthian Church. What Paul is saying is that a person must be humble in order to learn. Paul quoted from Job Chapter 5 and Psalm 94 to make his point. Verse 10 that he quoted from Psalm 94 was sandwiched between two verses that dealt with chastening. “10 He who chastens the nations, will He not rebuke, Even He who teaches man knowledge? 11 The LORD knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath. 12 Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O LORD, And whom You teach out of Your law” (Psalms 94:10-12). Chastening can be God’s way to bring us to a humble position. One of Paul’s intents was to bring the chastening of the Lord to bear on the sin of division in the Corinthian church.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
I want to include a story that will help you to understand holiness in light of biblical teachings so that you can better understand Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading. One night I was attending a dinner party at a friend’s house in a nearby city. After dinner, we were sitting around talking and the doorbell rang. My friend left to answer the door and then suddenly called out, “Jim, it’s for you!” Thoughts raced through my mind, who even knew that I was there, who could it be that wanted me while I was visiting someone else’s house? I left the dining room and walked over to the front door only to be met by two young Mormon missionaries. These were of course not unique and matched the “cookie cutter” pattern with their nametags and backpacks. This was going to be an interesting night! After I introduced myself to the men, I prayed silently and asked God for the approach that I should take in order to introduce these boys to the true Gospel. As it turned out I had just completed a study of Mormon doctrine and it came to me that I should discuss the doctrine of perfection with them. I just so happened to have a Bible with me in my jacket and I asked them if they were familiar with Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. I don’t remember their answer but I pulled out my Bible and asked them if they had time for a little Bible study because “You do believe in the Bible don’t you?” Next, I asked them, “How good do you have to be to make it to heaven?”
They said something like, “We strive to be perfect.” They were very nice boys, just a bit misguided.
I said that that was good because “Did you know that under the biblical Law Jesus taught that in order to be saved by being a good person you have to be perfect?” I opened up the Bible to Matthew Chapter 5 and read, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). I asked them what was their standard of perfection, just how good did they have to be to make it to heaven, and how would they know when they had reached this standard? They weren’t sure about that, but said that they just had to keep on trying. The debate continued and I was able to show them God’s true plan of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and not by good works. I explained to them how God emphasized the value of our good works, but that good works were not meritorious for salvation. I read to them Saint Paul’s capstone statement on the matter:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Paul’s statement about the only way that people are saved (v.8a) is quite different from what is taught by the Mormon “church” that believes that they are saved by grace, but only after all they can do. This addendum is noticeably missing from the Word of God. Since salvation is a free gift from God that is obtained only through faith in the Lord Jesus we don’t have to strive to be perfect in order to earn our salvation. Paul explained that the reason that God saved us was for the purpose of our good works. He didn’t say that we were saved because of our good works. Although Christians are called to live holy lives through God’s power a good Mormon is expected to triumph over sin in their own power, and this in order to earn their salvation. We can rejoice in the victory that God has given us over such a false belief system.
With these things in mind let’s read the Gospel text.
You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. 43 You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
The opening quotation was from Exodus 21:24. As an interesting side note, this quotation in Exodus followed the warning from God about neglecting to honor your parents. The Jewish Law said, “He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). Even though Jesus came to fulfill the Jewish Law, and under the New Covenant the civil and ceremonial Law are no longer binding upon Christians, the principles found in the moral Law are behaviors which are upheld in the New Testament. This includes honoring our parents (Ephesians 6:2), though the penalty for disobeying this law is no longer the death penalty. Notice the word “but,” a transitory (conjunction) term. Jesus said in effect, “The Law prescribed this (you have heard it said), but I say do that.” Jesus wasn’t contradicting the Law but was instead calling His followers to obey a standard higher than the Law. We will see that this calling wasn’t limited just to the Jewish Law, but to the laws of their entire society.
Jesus also called His followers to recognize a higher standard than their religious Law found in the Pentateuch (the first five Books of the Bible). His called extended to the Roman Civil law as well. This fact came out in verse 41 when Jesus spoke about being forced to go one mile. The First Century Jews were living under Roman occupation and as a result were under certain laws falling under the category of “impressment.” Although they weren’t under a requirement by the Romans to serve in a military function (conscription) they were required in certain circumstances to assist the Roman military. This could include being required to carry a Roman soldier’s backpack 1,000 paces (a Roman mile). Jesus’ outrageous call was to show the Roman soldiers generosity by going beyond the legal requirement. This principle of “going beyond the law” runs throughout the Gospel lesson for today.
Next, Jesus quoted from Leviticus 19, the text that we studied in the first reading. He said that you should love your neighbor (v.43) but go beyond this and love your enemies and those who persecute you (v.44). Jesus’ mention of “enemies and those who persecute you” could be an allusion to the Romans and the impressment laws. The Romans were the enemies of the Jews, which was a condition that came to a head with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, then again in AD 132.
Who are the “Romans” in your life? How might you go beyond obligation and actually go the extra mile?
The culmination of Jesus’ radical call to go beyond the requirements of the law to perfection was found in verse 48. Take careful note of the adverb “therefore,” and ask yourself “what is it there for?” This word is “there for” because it linked Jesus call to a radical new behavior to the source of the empowerment for His people to achieve it. Jesus said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). I asked the Mormon missionaries, how can anyone, even Jesus’ own disciples be perfect? If we look further ahead in the Sermon on the Mount to Matthew Chapter 6, it seems apparent that by this point in Jesus’ message the crowds had begun to rejoin Him and were hearing His message. This is evident because of the way the tone changed when He introduced practices that were typical of the Pharisees in 6:1-2. He said to “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them” (6:1a) and “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets” (6:2a-b). Although Jesus’ disciples may have had difficulties in controlling their personal behavior (as we do), they certainly didn’t warrant Jesus’ label of “hypocrites.” No, Jesus reserved this label for His nemesis, the group known as the Pharisees. Now, with this context in mind let’s read verse 48 in Chapter 5 again. How does Jesus love His “enemies” the Pharisees? Jesus said to the Pharisees and His disciples who were also listening, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Pharisees were hypocrites and many evidently thought that they were already perfect through their strident observance of the Law (Matthew 23:5-7). The Scripture clearly states that nobody can be made perfect under the Law, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). What the Pharisees didn’t understand was that perfection was only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. Saint Paul said, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Corinthians 5:21). Jesus provided the Holy Spirit to live within us as the source of our spiritual perfection. This spiritual perfection manifests itself in our radical obedience to God in going above the prescription of the eternal moral laws and the prevailing civil laws of our society. It’s not that we won’t ever sin but that our ongoing intention is to accomplish the work of God by being salt and light even to our enemies, the “Roman soldiers” in our community.
In summary, as Christians Scripture calls us to go beyond the law. Christians are called not only to observe the civil law (Romans 13:1-3) but to follow a standard above this body of law as well as a higher standard than the moral law that God has written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). God has provided us with His empowerment to follow this higher standard through the gift of the Holy Spirit Who is given to every believer who obeys (Acts 5:32). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
1. In the Gospel lesson we said that as believers our spiritual perfection manifests itself in radical obedience to God in going above the prescription of the eternal moral laws and the prevailing civil laws of our society. Answer the following questions.
A. Who are the “Roman soldiers” in your life? Is it your neighbor with their relentless barking dog? Has a city official ruled against you in a zoning dispute? Did a police officer nail you in a speed trap at the bottom of the hill in your village? Is your spouse eroding the feelings of love you once felt? Are you tired of changing an elderly person’s diaper? Is your coworker stealing your joy in the workplace?
B. How does knowing that God lives in your heart change the way that you view your enemies?
2. If holiness (being set apart) is God’s vision for created human beings, then how might you cooperate more fully with God’s plan?