My first experience with the Jewish kosher laws must have been in middle school.  My family had taken a trip that our high school had sponsored to the Catskills for a ski weekend.  The resort we were staying at was owned and operated by Orthodox Jews.  This was a rough weekend all around: I learned I wasn’t much of a skier.  I couldn’t ice skate… and then to top it all off, at lunch when I asked for a cheeseburger, I was told they didn’t have them because the kitchen was Kosher.  I was, shall we say, unhappy.  The waiter said that the kitchen could make a hamburger and give me cheese on the side, but they could not put it on the burger and melt the cheese.  Not going to lie, I was frustrated and sort of dismissive of the whole thing calling it “ridiculous.”

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the the SEVENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME – February 19, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

Because Christians are no longer subject to those kosher laws, we can look at the entire book of Leviticus where many of them come from as something that we can just as quickly dismiss.  Of the 73 books of the Bible, Leviticus is probably the least-read and least-popular book of the Bible to Christians.  This is understandable – if you’re looking for inspirational stories or motivational quotes you’re not going to find them there.  It reads more like a rule book – some in excruciating detail, some which to our modern ears sound incredibly random and specific.  Eating shrimp, for example, was said to be an “abomination.”  What is the point of Leviticus and why is it still important?

Leviticus is all about holiness.  How are the people supposed to behave… how are they supposed to act… What do they do in order to be “set apart” from the ways that other people lived and behaved?  How the other peoples of the world could see that being one of God’s Chosen People made them different.  That’s what holiness is.  We so often have images of people in stained glass or marble statues in our heads of people who are holy that are quite beautiful to look at but seem far removed from our lives and experiences and can judge that it is not possible for us to achieve.  Yes, Holiness is difficult because it goes against the current, what is accepted and promoted by the world, and often goes against our gut, our instincts, and our desires.  But holiness is possible. It’s a choice.  Holiness is listening to God’s word, It’s following His commands, which will all result in our living differently from the world.  It will make us stand out.  It sets us apart.

We as Catholic Christians are often relieved that some of those things that our ancestors were subjected to, like Kosher laws, don’t apply to us.   That was one of the amazing things that made Jesus so controversial 2000 years ago among His fellow Jews.  Curing on the Sabbath… releasing some of these dietary prohibitions were considered blasphemous, heresies to the religious leaders of his day and age.  But as we continue to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in today’s Gospel, we find that the call to holiness hasn’t gotten easier.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Just to recap, in last week’s Gospel, Jesus explained how He has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  And He explained what He meant by talking about the commandments prohibiting killing, adultery, divorce.  With each of them, expectations were raised from the narrow perspective where we were confronted with greater demands.  For example, we had to stop congratulating ourselves for not killing someone this past week and had to consider whether there was any anger in our hearts – which is the root of the destruction of life.  We had to stop patting ourselves on the back for not committing adultery and were confronted with the question have we ever had lust in our hearts which are the seeds of infidelity?

As if all that wasn’t challenging enough, this week Jesus commands us to what was and is considered the most difficult call of all. First, we hear about turning the other cheek, then giving when people have already, going an extra mile all capped with the hardest of all, to  “Love your enemies.”    Mind you, this doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to defend or protect ourselves, or to make ourselves victims.  The examples Jesus uses about ‘striking your right cheek’ doesn’t mean someone should tolerate physical abuse.  In these examples, He is starting by addressing the things that often lead to one becoming an enemy.  Striking the right cheek isn’t a threat to one’s life but is more along the lines of being insulted.  That’s why He doesn’t say when someone brings out a knife or spear to just stand there and take it.  And the giving of the cloak and going the extra mile is calling us not to resist when people make impositions on our goods and possessions, or more demands on our time.

In all of this, Jesus is again bringing to “fulfillment” what was already a difficult proposition.  In that first reading from Leviticus, we heard that part of the call to holiness was not to bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart… take no revenge, and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you are not well versed in Jewish history from the Old Testament, suffice it to say they were as good at loving their fellow Jews as we Catholics can be sometimes in loving our fellow Catholics.

Loving your neighbor can be difficult enough.  When our neighbor is annoying, isn’t living up to what we know God expects of us, seems ungrateful, and takes advantage of our kindness and generosity…  Few were – or are –  successful in the whole loving the neighbor thing, now Jesus is talking about loving our enemies?  We might want to argue shouldn’t we get the neighbor thing down first before He moves us into a more advanced, more demanding command.  Doesn’t He need to give us some more grace, and spiritual gifts to do that?

I don’t know about you, but all of a sudden avoiding cheese on a hamburger doesn’t seem so difficult.  I’d even be willing to give up shrimp.

Jesus isn’t setting us up to fail, putting impossible standards before us.  He’s calling us to recognize that as hard as it is to believe, that potential exists within us.  Think back to the psalm we prayed today The Lord is Kind and Merciful.  Those were words that King David had first uttered.  The great king had reflected on all the promises that God’s people had made to the Lord and had failed miserably at keeping.  Yet, God had been faithful to His promises – protecting them, delivering them from enemies, and continuing to pour blessings even when they had failed.  Even when they had rejected Him and His ways.  Even when they had in fact become God’s enemies, He still loved them.  That’s what Jesus is highlighting – yes, when they had become His enemies, God still loved them.

Jesus is taking the words of God from Leviticus “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am Holy” and underlining that He would never ask us to do something He Himself hasn’t already done.  Just as God has loved us when we were enemies to Him, He in calling us to be Holy, is calling us to be like Him and to do the same.  St. Augustine once put it “You don’t love in your enemies what they are, but what you would have them become by your prayers.”

Not too long ago, I was able to experience the truth of this.  Someone who had been a friend (note the past tense) for years – someone I had turned the other cheek, given a tunic, gone the extra mile for, and then some, we had a falling out.  Which only got worse as miscommunications and misunderstandings piled up.  I hadn’t considered them an enemy – I’m Italian – so we go in a whole other direction where we say there “dead to me” (that’s very different from wishing someone dead, which for Italians we are pretty specific about the difference) Being dead to me meaning I wasn’t going to think about them, talk about them – good or bad.  Kind of erase them.  Which is all completely foolish of course.  Because all that does is deny the anger, and hurt.  Bottle up inside which is oh-so healthy.  I started to realize that every time facebook popped up a picture in the “memories” section and I was feeling a knot in my stomach – every time someone would mention they saw them and asked them about me I was keenly interested in what was said.  I hated to admit that no they weren’t out of my mind, my heart, it wasn’t something that I had no emotional investment in – in fact, they were not dead to me – but rather this friend had become an enemy.

Woah that hurt.  It was easier for me to pretend they were dead.  Once I recognized the “enemy” status, I realized how hurt and sad, and angry I was.  In part because – yeah, I remembered Jesus was kind of clear about what we’re supposed to do for an enemy.  When an enemy is some nameless external threat removed from your own personal life like Islamic Terrorists or Chinese Communist Leaders – yeah it’s easy to add them to the prayer of the faithful and feel we’ve checked that off.  When we have the name, face, very clearly in mind.  When there is history and memories – that’s a whole other thing.

So I did what I thought was the most loving thing – praying for them.  They were on the list of  “enemies” – right there after the terrorists and communist leaders…  And it was days, weeks, months, a couple of years of that when I started in my prayer at one point just venting about the whole thing, the whole incident, all the reasons I was justifiably upset and hurt.  And I felt like the Lord kind of gently asked if there was anything on my part that I had done that I regretted.  I didn’t want to even go there, but when I did, I found myself just jotting things down that I felt bad about.  This one morning in prayer as I was going over all this, I felt the Lord asking me if I would be willing to apologize for that stuff.  Not for myself or my friend turned enemy but for Him – for Jesus.   It was kind of hard to say no.  I didn’t want to.  As I wrote it out a letter of apology, as I recognized the reality that so much time had passed maybe this was opening old wounds or creating new ones.  As I worried that maybe they’d use it to justify themselves and prove to everyone how they were right and I was wrong, maybe they would ignore it completely.   I really didn’t want to do it and was convinced that the friendship was unsalvageable anyway so maybe it was best to let it go.  But after a lot of wrestling and arguing with God, I did.

And honestly, it gave me a new understanding of holiness – of God calling me to go against what I wanted (or didnt want) calling me to go against my desires and feelings.  To listen to Him and do what He asked.  To be set apart.  This time, I did have the “Hallmark story ending.”  Where it was received, where there was true reconciliation, where our friendship wasn’t the same but actually better.  That was truly unexpected and just God in His generosity giving me more than I could have imagined or anticipated.

What was most important, and healing and transformative was letting Jesus’ words get to me.  Was letting Him challenge me to dig deeper.  To be uncomfortable and be honest.  Because hate is easy.  Being selfish and self-centered is easy.  It’s easy to justify ourselves and argue how right we are.  And that’s why we almost prefer focusing on external things that we can check off as a way of  “appeasing” God.   Jesus tells us that’s not enough.  He wants to go deeper.  He wants our hearts to be like His.  He wants us to love as He loves.  To be Holy as He is Holy.