Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

  • Lv 19:1-2, 17-18
  • Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
  • 1 Cor 3:16-23
  • Mt 5: 38-48

We continue to make our way through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, what biblical scholar Raymond Brown described as Matthew’s “greatest composition” because of how it weaves together source material “into a harmonious masterpiece of ethical and religious teaching.” But it is easier to celebrate the beauty of the composition than to live out these hard sayings of Jesus.

Last week we heard Jesus emphasize the moral agent’s intent in a maximalist understanding of the ethical life (not only prohibiting killing but anger, not only prohibiting adultery, but lustful thoughts as well). This week, we have the hard teachings of “turn the other cheek,” “give to the one who asks of you,” and “love your enemies.” We are told to “be perfect.”

Christians have always debated these texts. Did Jesus really mean it? Are we supposed to be doormats, letting someone walk all over us and take advantage of us? Can we ever set appropriate boundaries in relationships? Does the pacifism of this text require passivity in the face of terrorism or oppression? If we are wounded by sin, why bother striving for perfection?

Two examples demonstrate that thoughtful and faithful Catholics have disagreed about how to interpret and apply Jesus’s Sermon. Catholic theologian Charles Curran has described the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as “true ideal and not an absolute norm,” and he and others have defended the just war tradition as legitimate; on the other hand, Dorothy Day wrote in 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor: “We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urgent others to these efforts.”

I think what we are called to do now is wrestle with these hard sayings. Consider them an invitation to reflect on the hard work of discipleship. Begin to think about how you will practice Lent this year so that you can cultivate greater awareness of the presence of God in your life and ask how you can be more open to the invitation to change your life to better reflect the values of the way of Jesus in this sermon. Where are you called to bring peace? Can you give not from your leftovers but the cloak on your back? Can you respond to personal attacks with love? Striving for perfection is in the striving.

Two additional cautions are in order before we move away from these texts. First, Christians must recognize and reject supersessionism in our reading of the gospel of Matthew. Do not walk away with an easy summary from this text that reinforces bigotry against Jews. Amy-Jill Levine has expressed concern that well-meaning Sunday School teachers can repeat so-called conventional wisdom that “the Jews think of Law rather than Love, the Jews are hypocrites, the Jews killed Jesus,” etc. In a speech to the Society of Christian Ethics in January, she reminded those in attendance that “You don’t have to make Jews look bad in order to make Jesus look good.” While a dominant reading of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus is an authoritative interpreter of the law, one can explain and defend this christology today without demeaning or dehumanizing Jewish people.

Second, Christian practice is not “stuck” in the first century but has in fact developed over time and continues to do so, as we are part of a dynamic faith community. If last week’s reading didn’t prompt you to learn about the Catholic practice of annulment or Pope Francis’s teachings in Amoris Laetitia about meeting couples in irregular situations with mercy and care, it isn’t too late to read up on that yourself. If this week you are interested in learning more about church teachings on nuclear disarmament, military service, and peacemaking, take some time to explore those resources.

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