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Victor Cancino, S.J.February 15, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

Words matter, and this week’s readings introduce two adjectives that deserve some consideration. Leviticus introduces the notion of “holy,” while today’s Gospel ends with “perfect.” These two ideas can lead one down the wrong path if a person confuses the holiness and perfection of the Creator with the holiness and perfection of creation striving toward the Creator. 

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Lv 19:18)


Liturgical day
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Lv 19:1-18, Ps 103, 1 Cor 3:16-23, Mt 5:38-48

How do you experience holiness?

How would you describe holiness to a friend?

Which is a greater challenge, to be set apart or to be drawn towards your community?

This Sunday’s first reading comes from the nineteenth chapter of the book of Leviticus. The book takes its name from the tribe of Levi, which provided priests and other religious functionaries in ancient Israel. Leviticus follows Exodus in the Bible and serves as a code of liturgical law. It expands on an important concept from Exodus, that Israel is a unique “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Throughout Leviticus, Israel’s holiness was defined by the nation being “set apart,” living differently from all other peoples, so as to remain in God’s presence always (see Lv 20:24-26). 

The above description of holiness, as that which is set apart, can lend itself to misunderstanding if taken as something limited and exclusive. This Sunday’s first reading, for example, speaks directly against such logic and opens holiness to a wider audience. “Speak to the whole community,” says the Lord to Moses, “and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy” (Lv 19:1-2). All of Israel is called to be holy and to understand what that entails. God is holy because God is set apart from creation and yet remains intimately involved with it. Israel’s holiness, likewise, makes it distinct from the world while remaining intimately enmeshed in it. God cares for the created world enough to confer religious, moral and ethical standards. Israel is meant to live out this divine word. In this role, Israel provides a new foundation for ethical guidance, the golden rule to love your neighbor as yourself (Lv 19:18). 

The mandate to be holy or to be perfect like God implies that we imitate God in one aspect alone: to be set apart from the world while passionately drawn towards it.

In this Sunday Gospel reading from Matthew, repetitions from Leviticus appear with slight alterations. In one example, Jesus commands his disciples to love their neighbor, but then expands the commandment and teaches them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt 5:43-44). In another instance, Jesus’ counsel to be “perfect” echoes the mandate in Leviticus to be holy, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). 

The term perfect plays a role similar to the notion of holiness in this Sunday’s first reading. 

In English, the word “perfect” usually indicates a state of flawlessness, which morally is impossible to achieve. The Greek adjective (teleios) is the word behind the English “perfect” here. It can also mean “flawness,” but due to nuance it means a kind of “maturity and fullness” for God the Father and another kind of “maturity” unique to humans. When Jesus illustrates the Father’s “maturity,” he emphasizes mystery and divine justice, “he makes his sun rise on the bad and good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Human perfection (teleios) means to mature, to grow up and learn how to live in a society made up of different people and cultures. Human maturity is to strive for the same level of equanimity, to give neighbors and enemies the same love that we ourselves have received from God.   

The mandate to be holy or to be perfect like God implies that we imitate God in one aspect alone: to be set apart from the world while passionately drawn towards it. This culminates in love of neighbor and enemy alike. I usually give advice to my parishioners that we do not have to like everyone. We do, however, strive to love all walks of life. Like the call in Leviticus, the readings remind all the faithful to be set apart, to be holy, and this is fleshed-out in the love of one’s neighbor and more so in the love of one’s so-called enemies. In other words, the readings challenge us to grow up.

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