Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
We have been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks. First there were the Beatitudes. Next Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world. Then last week, Jesus began teaching the commandments in a new way. Just like today, he says “You have heard it said” and then he names one of the commandments, and then he says “But I say to you” and then he teaches a new way of understanding that commandment. However, there is a crucial difference between last week’s reading and today’s.
Last week Jesus’ teaching had a certain logic to it. Any reasonable person could understand his teaching. “Thou shall not kill” includes not hating our brothers and sisters, not calling them names. “Thou shall not commit adultery” includes not committing the sin mentally, includes pornography and romance novels. Jesus is telling us that the commandments are not about crossing some line. We should not even be walking in the general direction of sin. It is a hard teaching, but when we hear Jesus teach it, something within us knows that he is right, that this is the way that the commandments ought to be understood.
Suddenly, although the format of Jesus’ teaching stays the same, it stops making any sense. “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yes, an important teaching. The punishment should fit the crime, neither unfairly harsh or unfairly gentle. How is Jesus going to expand this teaching? “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” What? That is completely illogical. “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” Really? “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.” And should we walk around naked then? “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.” When exactly does a person get their own work done then? “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” Even if we know they are not going to pay us back? Even if we need the money more than they do?
The other teachings are hard, but we wish we could live up to them. These teachings are just foolish. If we followed these teachings, someone could come up to our home and just ask for things until we were naked in the middle of the street. The new teaching is that there is no limit on how much we should let people take advantage of us. Any group of people who tried to follow these teachings would go out of existence pretty quickly. Anyone who followed these teachings would be a fool.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, in our second reading today, “If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.” St. Paul recommends that we become fools. He wrote in this same letter, a little earlier, the reason: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Let us think then for awhile about this foolishness of God.
When you hear these words from Jesus, do they inspire you? I mean before you think about the practical implications of allowing the world to take complete advantage of you. Do these words have the power to speak to something deep in your heart? Do these words make you want to stand up and live the Gospel without compromise? I hope they do. I hope no one is so cynical that their only reaction is to laugh at the foolishness. Something is dead inside of such a person. Something about these words should make us sad that the world is the way it is, that we cannot live them out.
It is certain that we cannot live these commandments to the letter. Jesus did not let people take advantage of him in every situation. Several times the Gospel tells us that he just walked through the midst of a crowd of people trying to kill him or arrest him. Jesus had a mission to fulfill, and he could not let anyone stand in the way. He would ultimately fulfill these words perfectly, but only when the right time had come.
Here is an understanding: we ought to follow the teachings as far as possible. A father needs to provide for his family, and sometimes that will mean saying no to someone trying to take advantage of him. A mother needs to protect her children, and sometimes that means the opposite of turning the other cheek. But what if we took this commandment as a presumption, saying, “Times will come when my responsibilities in this world will prevent me from following this commandment, but, as far as I am able, I will live according to this teaching.”
This commandment and others like it are the reason why some vocations are higher than others. All of us have vocations, whether to marriage or priesthood or religious life. A vocation is said to be higher when it allows a person to better live out the teachings of Jesus. So religious life is higher than marriage, as St. Paul also affirms, because a Sister or Brother is better able to turn the other cheek, to serve for two miles, to give up any material thing, than a married person. This does not mean that the person is better (there are saints who were married), but a married person is always going to be conflicted between their responsibilities and the teachings of Jesus. A person in religious life is more free to follow Jesus; of course, they may or may not actually follow him.
I point this out not for those of us who know our vocation, who are committed to it; all that is left for us is to live it. I point this out for those young people here today who want to know their vocation, who want to know what God wants them to do with their life. If the words of today’s Gospel speak in a particular way to you, if something in these words makes you happy when you hear them, you should consider whether God is calling you to the kind of life, as a Sister or Brother or Priest, where you can more freely live them out.