Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I have never quite worked out whether the compilers of our Lectionary give us passages from the Jewish law to illustrate the fact that Christianity does not follow this way and is totally reliant on God’s mercy, or to the contrary that they believe, like many a badly taught Catholic, that God, Santa-like rewards the good and punishes the bad. Sadly, I fear it is the latter. Jesus, we must remember was killed by the Jewish hierarchy precisely because of his radical contradictions to the law, and his revolutionary understanding of the God-man relationship. That was and is that we share God’s life, and should not expect to be kicked around the block because of our failings.
The Book of Leviticus (19:1-2.17-18), part of which we read today taken from the Holiness Code, 17-26, was all about good ordering and control. Now whilst Jews had had many rules which were developing over hundreds of years, it was only with the reforms of the Deuteronomic writers, just before the Babylonian exile and the work of their associates the priests of the Levitical school after the exile C 520 BCE, that they were collected and promulgated for the general good of all. The call, as we see, is to being holy as God is holy. But the manner of achieving this, as you will see if you can bother to read Leviticus, is all about a strict code of behaviour with blessings and good things for the obedient, and punishment, frequently the death penalty, for detractors. Israel’s story has always been about people who continually messed up and who suffered punishment for their transgressions; and the smashing of the recalcitrant and of enemies has always featured strongly on this scene. Whilst ostensibly our passage bears some resemblance to the exegesis of the Beatitudes by Jesus, and we can see where they are coming from; in actual practise we begin to realise that the situation is in reality very different indeed. If we actually lived by the laws of Leviticus our world would be a mass of cemeteries and our societies would be police states.
What Jesus is actually doing in his stripping down of the Beatitudes, (here Matthew 5:38-48) is to present us with a quite impossible set of injunctions, and moreover ones in which he goes far beyond those set by Jewish law. Jews indeed, deliberately set themselves apart from foreigners, and had many rules about how to avoid their contaminating influence. And taking revenge on enemies was heartily espoused, as the Psalms illustrate so well.
So what was Jesus doing and asking his followers to think and do? If his requirements are so outrageous – and they are; if they are so impossible to achieve – and they are; how are we to understand them and, indeed use them in any helpful way at all? I think the clue lies in the remark Jesus makes after speaking of loving enemies: ‘In this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike…..you must be perfect therefore just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ The whole of the Beatitudes are clearly NOT moral injunctions! They are a vision of God and of what he promises that humanity is called to be. In reality, as Jesus knew full well, most of us sin most of the time. We get irritated with our nearest and dearest, yell rebuke at the likes of Mr Trump and of drivers who perform badly at the wheel, and in myriads of ways support abusive regimes which kill and maim their citizens. After all, we sell arms to the Saudis who deploy them against Yemen, not to mention our relations with the Assad regime. We buy cheap clothes from exploiting foreign countries, and so on. The list is endless. We just aren’t pure and sinless, and only when we recognise this can we begin to appreciate and fathom the extraordinary graces of God showered upon us, and see the enormity of his will and gift to us in giving us eternal life in and through the Son. So the Beatitudes are not Jesus’ little plan to make us all a bit nicer! No, they are his gift of divinity, his promise of what God will make of us eternally.
This was something the frequently exasperated St Paul laboured to convey to the hapless Christians of Corinth who seem to have spent most of the time getting the message of salvation wrong. For some of them at least, redemption from sin gave them a carte-blanche to live just as they chose, abusing and exploiting others in the happy misunderstanding that having been redeemed, they could do no wrong. Paul must have had moments when he wondered how it could be that his preaching of Christ could possibly have conveyed such evil and mistaken values to them. In our passage, (1 Cor 3:16-23) he tries to correct this view by describing the converted as ‘God’s temple.’ Paul wanted the Christians to think about that phrase, about what it was to be a sacred space, wholly devoted to the worship of the divine, in touch with God’s glory, image and being. Anyone entering one of the many pagan temples in Corinth would have been awed by the great cult statue at its heart, and would have paid it appropriate homage and reverence, including sacrifice. Paul asks the Christians of Corinth to think of their own bodies in a similar way, and then ask themselves if they could possibly resort to prostitutes, commit adultery, lie, cheat and rip each other off in the courts, let alone use their most sacred ceremonies as a boozy party, and one in which they abused their poorer neighbours. And this was the behaviour of the better-off Christians, those who in the society of the time thought of themselves as the ‘wise’, the educated, those who ‘understood’ the faith. Against all their worldly delusions he holds up the great contrast, the figure of the crucified Christ, one who puts everyone else to shame, and has yet brought each and every one of us to share God’s life. ‘You belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. ‘