by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
TWO TOUGH COMMANDS bookend this Sunday’s readings from the Scriptures. First, there’s Leviticus, where God directs Moses to tell the people, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” Then there is Matthew, where Jesus instructs His disciples, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
There is no avoiding the directness of these commands, no easy way out, no way to water them down. If that’s the case – and I am sure it is – then how are we to understand these precepts, and even more importantly, what will it take for us to obey them and put them into practice?
Let’s start with “holy.” It’s a word we use a lot, both in and outside of church. In church, we sing it or say it at every celebration of the Mass right after the preface and just before the eucharistic prayer. In the preface that accompanies the fourth eucharistic prayer, the presiding bishop or priest introduces that chant with these words, addressed to God: “in your presence are countless hosts of angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim.”
The assembly then joins in the Sanctus, echoing the words of the two seraphim who are attendants at God’s heavenly throne in Isaiah 6: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,’ they cried one to the other. ‘All the earth is filled with his glory.’”
These seraphim mean business!
They are anything but the cute, wispy-winged angels of Christmas pageants with wire coat-hanger haloes decorated with sparkly tinsel. They are fearsome, fiery (the word “seraph” means “burning one”) guardians of the divine throne, and their outcry – with its threefold repetition – is not a sweet song, but a loud warning, at the sound of which the frame of the door to God’s temple shook.
In effect, their call back and forth one to another is a barrier of words that says, in effect, “Don’t even think about coming any closer!” Seeing what he sees and hearing what he hears, Isaiah is appropriately terrified: “Woe is me, I am doomed!”
In this light, the holiness of God is a way of describing the absolute otherness of God, the infinite transcendence of God that establishes an insuperable distance between God and all that is merely mortal, between God and what is merely material, between God and everything other than God. If that’s all that’s involved in the command, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy,” then we’re all in trouble. By these standards, none of us can ever measure up. As St. Augustine taught, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand, you have failed.”
The wisdom of this world, as St. Paul puts it, is foolishness in the eyes of God, a wisdom that is unfit to scale the heights of heaven. Because the all-holy God is absolutely beyond the grasp of our limited understanding, each of us might be given to join Isaiah in crying out, “Woe is me!”
Fortunately for us, there is more to God’s holiness than that. If God could be described only as supremely transcendent – completely above and beyond – then we could know nothing of God, and we could hardly aspire to be holy as God is holy. Yet the holiness of God involves another essential dimension, and that is the affirmation found in the First Letter of John that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
Here is the key to understanding both of the tough commands in this Sunday’s Scriptures. It is the all-holy God who took the initiative to love all of creation into being and who, through love, sustains creation in being. It is the all-holy God who sent the fullness of love incarnate and visible and tangible in the person of Jesus, and it is the all-holy God who chooses to become vulnerable by loving the likes of us, sinners and saints alike. Love is the outward-directedness of the holiness of God. Yet by loving us, by taking the initiative to draw near to us, God invites us to love in return, that is to do as God does, and thus to be holy as God is holy.
How can we possibly love the unseen God? Knowing that His disciples were faced with this dilemma, God’s own Beloved Son Jesus teaches them, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
To be perfect, then, is to love as gratuitously as God loves, not out of selfish interest: “For if you love those who love you, what recompense do you have?” Thus, paradoxically, it is by loving our enemies, by loving those from whom we do not expect love in return, and not by asking what is in it for me, that we can draw near to the perfection and the holiness of God.
“Whoever keeps the word of Christ,” especially the challenging words of this Sunday’s Gospel, “the love of God is truly perfected in them” (1 John 2:5). Nothing grand about that and nothing dramatic, but that’s what it takes.
Readings for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18
Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
1 Corinthians 3: 16-23
Matthew 5: 38-48
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.