Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Be Perfect, Just As Your Heavenly Father Is Perfect.

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Kings 21:17-29
After the death of Naboth
the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite:
“Start down to meet Ahab, king of Israel,
who rules in Samaria.
He will be in the vineyard of Naboth,
of which he has come to take possession.
This is what you shall tell him,
‘The LORD says:
After murdering, do you also take possession?
For this, the LORD says:
In the place where
the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth,
the dogs shall lick up your blood, too.’”
Ahab said to Elijah,
“Have you found me out, my enemy?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Because you have given yourself up
to doing evil in the LORD’s sight,
I am bringing evil upon you: I will destroy you
and will cut off every male in Ahab’s line,
whether slave or freeman, in Israel.
I will make your house
 like that of Jeroboam, son of Nebat,
and like that of Baasha, son of Ahijah,
because of how you have provoked me
by leading Israel into sin.”
(Against Jezebel, too, the LORD declared,
“The dogs shall devour Jezebel
in the district of Jezreel.”)
“When one of Ahab’s line dies in the city,
dogs will devour him;
when one of them dies in the field,
the birds of the sky will devour him.”
Indeed, no one gave himself up to the doing of evil
in the sight of the LORD as did Ahab,
urged on by his wife Jezebel.
He became completely abominable
by following idols,
just as the Amorites had done,
whom the LORD drove out
before the children of Israel.
When Ahab heard these words,
he tore his garments
and put on sackcloth over his bare flesh.
He fasted, slept in the sackcloth,
and went about subdued.
Then the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite,
“Have you seen that
Ahab has humbled himself before me?
Since he has humbled himself before me,
I will not bring the evil in his time.
I will bring the evil upon his house
during the reign of his son.”
Our reading today follows immediately on yesterday. We see Ahab pay the price for the murder of Naboth.

Ahab has just been told by his wife that Naboth is now dead so he immediately goes down to the vineyard he coveted so much to take it over. But just then Elijah is receiving instructions from the Lord to go and confront the king in the vineyard. He is given a strong message to pass on to Ahab: “After murdering Naboth, are you now going to take over his ancestral land? In fact, in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs will lick up your blood also.” Ahab had not directly killed Naboth but he had cooperated fully in the murder and theft planned by his wife and, as king, the ultimate responsibility was his.

In fact, Ahab’s repentance for his actions, which will be mentioned in a moment, brought about a postponement of this prophecy. Instead, it will be the body of his son Joram which will be thrown on the field of Naboth.

More than that, Ahab is told that all his male descendants, free or slave, will be wiped out. Their bodies will either be eaten by dogs or by carrion-eating birds. The body of Jezebel, too, will be eaten by dogs. “When one of Ahab’s line dies, dogs will devour him; when one of them dies in the field, the birds of the sky will devour him.” These were terrible indignities as dogs were symbolical of all that was unclean and defiled. (We remember the poor man Lazarus in the house of the rich man. The level of his helpless destitution is indicated by dogs coming to lick his sores. He did not even have the strength to drive them away; meanwhile the rich man sat there doing nothing.)

As Elijah pronounces God’s sentence we might note the similarity with the episode of Nathan and David (where he is accused of the death of Uriah after his adultery with Bathsheba). On each occasion Yahweh defends the helpless against the powerful and, as in the case of David, there is the same reprieve for the repentant offender who is punished only through his son. But there are differences, too. David’s dynasty retains the divine promise, whereas Ahab’s is “swept away”. Nathan remains David’s prophet and blesses Solomon but Elijah is Ahab’s “enemy”.

In addition to this murder, we are told that Ahab was responsible for all kinds of abominations, connected with the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites, under the pernicious influence of his wife. He became no different from the Amorites, a reference to the idolatrous peoples of Canaan before the Israelites arrived.

To his credit, after hearing the condemnation of Elijah, Ahab deeply repents of what he has done. He rends his garments, puts on sackcloth and walks in the slow steps of the repentant person.

Because of this, the punishments against his family would be postponed until after he died. He was, in fact, killed in battle at Ramoth Gilead and, after his body was brought to Samaria, dogs licked the blood that was being washed from his chariot. His son Joram was killed and the body thrown into Naboth’s field - just as Elijah had foretold.

Reflecting on this story we can say two things:
- our wrongdoings carry with them unavoidable punishments, built into the very nature of evil actions;
- no matter how serious our faults, God’s compassion and forgiveness awaits those who genuinely repent  and change their ways.
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Psalm 51
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion
wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Turn away your face from my sins,
and blot out all my guilt.
Free me from blood guilt,
O God, my saving God;
then my tongue shall revel in your justice.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
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Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
For if you love those who love you,
what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect,
just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We come to the last of the six examples that Jesus gave as illustrations of how he brings the teaching of the Law to a higher and more perfect plane.
The saying that Jesus uses today, “You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy”, is not found as such in the Hebrew Testament. Rather we find in the book of Leviticus where it says, “You must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The wording here would seem to condone, however, acts of revenge against strangers and outsiders. And, in practice, as indeed is the case in many communities throughout the world, the saying of Jesus reflects the way many people feel is a justified way of acting. And, as we saw earlier on where Jesus spoke about anger, at least limited revenge was condoned in the phrase ‘an eye for an eye…’.
Again, Jesus turns things on their head with a saying which many people would find quite unrealistic, if not downright stupid. He tells us actually to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can we be asked to do such a thing?
Yet, if we would only reflect a little, the advice of Jesus makes a great deal of sense and, in fact, is really the only way to go for our own happiness and peace. Otherwise, as Jesus says, his listeners were no different from ‘tax collectors’, a group who, because they worked for the occupying power, were held in special contempt, or pagans, that is, people who lived God-less lives.
To understand what Jesus is saying we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’.

Who are our enemies? They can either be the people that we are hostile towards or the people who are hostile to us. The practising Christian who takes on board the teaching of Jesus will want to have positive attitudes to people in general and will not marginalise anyone on the basis of race, nationality, colour, class, gender or whatever. Such a person will not want to act in a way unnecessarily to create hostility in others. However, simply because we try to look and act positively towards others is no guarantee that they will act in the same way towards us. Through no objective fault of our own, we may become the object of their dislike, resentment, hatred, jealousy, anger and even violence. These are our enemies. And we are to love them.

What does ‘love’ mean here? The word that the gospel uses is a verb from the noun agape . Agape is a unilateral way of loving by which, irrespective of the actions or attitudes of another person, I desire their well-being. It is the love which God extends to every one of his creatures, irrespective of how they respond to him. In this it is quite different from the love which involves sharing, intimacy, affection and a strong element of mutual giving.

We are not being asked to love our enemies with the love of affection, to be in love with them or to be fond of them. That would not make sense and they would not want it. But we are asked to reach out and desire their well-being. This can be done when we focus our attention and our concern more on them than on ourselves.

When we are the objects of other people’s hostility we tend to go on the defensive and to generate negative attitudes towards the other. Our inner security (or insecurity) is under attack. Jesus is asking us rather to respond to the real situation rather than to react to spontaneous feelings.

When someone hates me, attacks me, is angry with me for no reason that I can think of, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I will reach out and ask, “What is wrong with that person? Why is that person acting in that way? What is bothering that person? Is there any way I can help to dissolve this person’s negative behaviour which is probably a sign of some inner self-hating or insecurity on their part?”

And certainly when I begin to think in this way, it becomes perfectly natural to pray for that person, to pray for their inner healing, for a restoration of peace and inner security. To hate someone who hates me, to be violent with someone who is violent with me, simply means that there are twice as many problems as there were at the beginning. By responding in the way that Jesus suggests, we end up with no problem at all!

And Jesus gives us another motive for acting in this way: it is the way God himself acts. He causes the hot, merciless sun to shine on the good as well as the bad; the cool, refreshing rain falls equally on the bad as well as the good. What Jesus is saying is that God’s love, his agape, reaches out indiscriminately to every single person, irrespective of their behaviour.

“You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfection here refers to that unconditional agape that God extends to every single person. If we are to grow into the likeness of God and give witness to his presence in the world, we need to act in exactly the same way. And wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if people followed Jesus’ advice? Far from being impractical, it is the only way to go.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

“Have you found me out, my enemy?”

Superficially, Elijah is Ahab's enemy, but Elijah is speaking to Ahab in God's name, so Ahab has actually made God his enemy. Ahab's enemy - God - is indeed his persecuter, but with the aim of bringing him to repentance.

Ahab's partner in crime, Jezebel, who got Ahab what he wanted, was Ahab's real enemy, not Elijah.

Ever since Eve met the snake, human beings have tended to mistake enemies for friends and vice versa!

'Be perfect'

This reminds me of Our Lord's words on the cross: 'It is finished.' Something perfect is something fully finished. The Crucifixion is God's act of perfect love, even for His 'enemies': sinners. The sun rising and the rain falling on the just and the unjust makes me think of Christ being lifted up and God's mercy raining down.