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Summoned to holiness.

FEBRUARY 20, 2011, SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Patricia Datchuck Sanchez

Lv 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

Two summons to holiness form a framework within which we can explore today's sacred texts. In the first reading, the author evokes Israel's ancient Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), calling out in God's name, "Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy." In today's Gospel, the Matthean Jesus echoes this same challenge as he tells his would-be followers: "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." In between these two summons, believers are reminded of what it means to be holy or perfect in the eyes of God and before all others.

Before welcoming that insight once again into our lives, it may prove helpful to turn the question on ourselves: In what does holiness consist? Some may respond that we acquire holiness by keeping the commandments. Others may add church attendance to the list. Still others will draw on references to prayer, fasting and alms-giving that we find in the scriptures. A variety of religious denominations quote the golden rule as a formula for holiness. For Buddhists, an eightfold path consisting of right understanding, right thoughts or motives, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness,' right effort and right meditation is what will lead to happiness and holiness.

For adherents of Islam, holiness is attained by fulfilling the Five Pillars, which consist of believing in God and the messengership of Muhammad; daily prayers, five times a day; fasting; spiritual tithing and alms-giving; and the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca they take at least once in their lifetime.

Those who ascribe to Jainism and Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism understand that their path to holiness will entail a lifelong struggle with karma. Among most of the religions of India, people cultivate good karma by observing the three principles of nonviolence, non-possessiveness and non-absolutism in conjunction with good deeds.

Christians in pursuit of holiness have undertaken a variety of spiritual exercises, including those of Ignatius, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. All these paths have merit and have served believers for centuries. Today, though, the sacred texts engage us in a simpler consideration of what it means to be holy.

The authors of Leviticus and the Matthean Jesus call their listeners to holiness--a holiness that is not rooted in themselves or their deeds, but in God. God created humankind in the divine image, the essence of all that is true, good, loving and holy, and then called upon every believer to be true to that image in word and in deed. Judeo-Christian tradition, citing this special relationship between Creator and creature, describes holiness as being "set apart" or "sanctified" by God for a special service. The Jewish sacred vessels in the temple were set apart, or consecrated for service in the liturgies of the Temple. In the same way, Christians understand themselves to be earthen vessels or human temples in which God dwells and the Spirit moves (second reading). Understood in this way, holiness consists in being transparent God-bearers and luminous Christ-bearers for others. Believers are called to a holiness that leads us to forgive others and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus).

In today's Gospel, Jesus will expand upon the Leviticus prescriptions. Instead of seeking retribution when they are wronged, believers are to manifest their holiness through nonviolent service. Offer no resistance, challenges Jesus. In a world where revenge is planned and savored, go the second mile, give your coat as well as your shirt, give to anyone who asks. If this sort of holiness seems impractical and even preposterous, Jesus goes even further and calls for us to love our enemies and persecutors.

Most of the believing world has yet to take Jesus at his word. Nevertheless, the living word of God continues to send out this summons to holiness. Is it logical? No. Is it easy? No. But, is it the holiness we have seen so eloquently expressed in God's gift of Jesus, who offered his own life, suffering and death for the sake of our holiness? Yes. How, then, will we respond to this summons?

[Patricia Sanchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]
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Title Annotation:REFLECTION
Author:Sanchez, Patricia Datchuck
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 4, 2011
Words:731
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