We don’t often have a reading from the book of Leviticus. It is the third book of the Bible; the first five books together are called the Law, but it is not just lists of laws but the five books are about the way God relates to the world. However the book of Leviticus is largely about rules; some are specifically about the Temple with all the ceremonies that had to be performed there by the priests. The Levites were one of the tribes that traced their descent from Abraham who was called by God; this book is named after them and from their ranks the priests were taken. But there are also rules for the people of all the tribes and the first reading is a selection of verses chosen from Leviticus to indicate to us today that the laws which the book is about are really about the inner attitude that people should have, not just externsl actions – just keeping the letter of the law. It is an elaboration of the ten commandments; and our reading ends with a key command quoted by Jesus when talking about the Law.
The first two sentences of the second reading show us how Paul’s mind moves when dictating his letters, for they read as though they express one of his ideas that just came to mind, but they don’t relate particularly well to what went before, and really not at all to the rest of our reading. The idea expressed is that “you are the Temple of God”, that is, a sacred place where God is present and can be addressed. We notice that the “you” is plural in the Greek and we know that he is writing to the church in Corinth, so he is affirming that they as a community are where God is present in the world. The rest of our reading probably addresses some aspects of the Corinthian church that Paul has mentioned to them before in this letter. There seem to be different groups who have different ideas; but human ideas are all shown up as foolishness by God. Paul is trying to lift them above the differences among them about Christianity. They should try to realise that they, as a community, have the very Spirit of God within them; and it is this inner reality that Christianity is about and not personal differentces of practice or understanding. Paul sees that every idea and all of the people are within God’s scheme of things and within His reality by being within the Body of Christ, which is how He is present in our world. Paul quotes from his bible (our Old Testament) to support his ideas.
For the gospel reading we have another section from what is presented as a sermon of Jesus.; as we hear it we should realise the very radical – deep nature – of the challenge to us as Christians that it puts forward. What we have today is the last two of the five examples that Matthew writes to illustrate what is meant by this deepening of the Jewish Law. The first of the two is about response to being hurt or offended, “an eye for an eye.” This is a very old law among ancient peoples and may well have been introduced to curb the violent vendettas in which those suffering offence from another paid back worse, much worse, than they got. The detailed examples refer to the right of the Romans as occupying forces to require the locals to carry for them for at least a mile; “go even further” would be a hard saying of Jesus for his hearers in Galilee. The last of the examples of fulfilling the spirit of the laws, is about love of neighbour. Interestingly Christians still think of this as the Christian way – love God and love your neighbour – but what is said in this gospel passage is that you should extend your love also to enemies. This is based on what today we would understand as the redeemed and elevated state of humanity, enabled to live with the very life of Christ, who loves everyone and everything and died for this love. So the sermon concludes by urging us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The beautiful prose of the passage should not distract us from the frightening challenge that it poses!
See Jeffs Jottings – Off, at and why