For Feb. 23, 2014: 7 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                            Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Priests in Israel were Levites (that is, of the tribe of Levi), and the book of Leviticus begins by discussing the priests and their duties. Chapters 18 through 20 are called the “Holiness Code”; they lay out how all the people who are God’s are supposed to behave, and can make for uncomfortable reading.

The Response                                    Psalm 119:33-40

We continue reading from Psalm 119. This is the fifth stanza, called the heh section because in Hebrew each verse in it begins with the letter ה (heh). The psalmist prays to understand and follow the Law.

The Epistle                                                  1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

The verses from Leviticus called us to be holy as God is holy. Paul tells us that we already are holy, for in this world God’s temple or dwelling place is in fact each of us—each one on the planet. What is more, we belong to each other: contrary to worldly wisdom, grasping for more will not make me better.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 5:38-48

As Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus twice—extending it outward beyond our neighbor and calling us to love all as God loves. The difficult word perfect translates the Greek telios ‘complete’: the last verse might be rendered “Be as completely like God as you can be.”

 

Ponderables

Jesus misquoted Leviticus—with the goal of helping us to read Leviticus right.

The first quote, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—alluding to Leviticus 24:19-21—is literally correct but subject to misappropriation. We quote it to justify what we feel we deserve from those who hurt us; we assume it assigns the minimum level of recompense that we are entitled to. In context, however, the verse specifies a maximum and so is not a spur to the human thirst for revenge but a curb. Jesus then goes even farther. If I truly follow Jesus, I should not be looking to get my own back, and I am not entitled to assume that other people intend to hurt or diminish me.

The second quote is a riff on Leviticus 19:18—but that verse does not counsel us to hate our enemies. In fact, the Leviticus reading specifies ways in which we are to deal lovingly with the poor, aliens, and people in our power. Jesus’ version reflects not what Leviticus says but where human wisdom—the human wisdom that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians—tends to take it. Then Jesus blows our interpretation apart. He tells us that our God loves everyone enough to send good things not just to those who, according to the world, deserve them, but also to those who don’t.

What if we all really gave as good as we have gotten?

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