Fr. Luke Uebler photo, "Sunday Homilies"

“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”  Words from our 1st reading from the 19th chapter of the book of Leviticus – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.

So, there was a father who broke up a fight between his two sons, and he demanded to know who started it.  Repeating himself, he said, “I thought I made it clear that I will tolerate no fighting, so which one of you started it.”  “He did,” replied his firstborn son: “It wasn’t a fight until he hit me back.” (He hit me back, so the elder son really hit his younger brother first)…  Turn the other cheek – this is a good rule of thumb when the other guy is bigger than you…  The Bible tells us to love our neighbors and also to love our enemies.  Probably because they are generally the same people!

Go the extra mile, hand over your tunic, turn the other cheek, greet others besides your own family and friends, give to whoever asks, pray for those who persecute you, love your enemy.  Jesus lays out some pretty tall demands for those who call themselves Christians.  He is setting the bar pretty high.  We know this is challenging and that both personally and collectively we are far from perfect in this regard.  Consider this from another angle, however.  What if Jesus said instead, “It’s OK, just be like everyone else?”  What business or company or organization do you know that strives for mediocrity, to be like everyone else?  If they have no selling point: to be cheaper, more innovative, greener, efficient, more relational and family friendly, would you invest in such a company or buy their products or participate in their activities?  More likely than not, the brand will fall into obscurity and go out of business.  A catchphrase of today’s society is “I am a good person.”  Of course, that’s true - God created us good.  And so there are good Jews, good Muslims, good Hindus, good atheists, are there not?  What is unusual about good Christians?  Don’t the pagans do all these good things besides, Jesus asks rhetorically?  We are not being called to blend in, we are called to be different, to be set apart. 

And that precisely is the meaning of the word, “Holy.”  To be Holy actually means to be set apart.  Why is something sacred, because it is “set apart” from other, worldly things.  In salvation history, we call the Israelites God’s Holy People because they were “set apart” from the other nations to proclaim the one true God to all the earth; the people of Israel were to witness to God’s power to save, they were share the commandments and this unique way of life that made for true freedom and peace; from Israel was to come the Messiah and the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Israel therefore was set apart, was made holy by God.  The first reading today, reminds them of this their role: be different, be set apart, “be Holy for I the Lord your God are holy,” who is himself indeed set apart from much of the bloodthirsty and illusory gods of history. 

 This same God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, as the Word was made flesh and dwells among us.  And so, from there the love of God was revealed to us in a new and definitive way when Jesus made a new covenant at the Last Supper, in his sacrifice on Calvary, in his resurrection on Easter Morning.  His divine love opened up a new life, a different life, an eternal life.  At our baptism, we received a share in this new life, this different life, and so we were set apart, we were made holy, and charged to be true to that lifestyle by following in Jesus’ way of life through our discipleship.  Concretely, very practically we ask, what makes Jesus’ way of life unique?  What is characteristic of a Christian lifestyle that sets us apart?  That is answered for us in the readings of today: Christians are set apart by their love, which is characterized by a super-abundance.  A love that is not calculated, that is not transactional, that does not focus on the minimum or even what is reasonably expected of us.  It is a love that is modeled after the perfect love of Jesus who was willing to sacrifice everything and offer even his very self in the service of another.  It is modeled after the love of Jesus who was stripped of his clothes, who turned the other cheek, who forgave those who crucified him, who welcomed strangers as well as his friends, who generously gave to those who asked, who prays for us all unceasingly, who travelled from heaven to earth to hell and back going the extra mile out of love for us.  Just as we do enough we are called to do more.  This is the kind of super-abundant, generous people we are striving to live and become.  We are not called to settle for less.  We are striving to be set apart, to be holy as God is holy, to be perfect as Jesus is perfect.  St. Paul reminds us that the wisdom of this age is foolish because it plays to that notion of I just want to be like everyone else, and have what they have.  But already know that doesn’t get us anywhere – that doesn’t make us happy.  Those who are wise would ask themselves, “What would Jesus do? And model their life after his.”  We are at our best selves when we follow Jesus and belong to him and not to the world.   Today’s readings give us something more of a commandment from Jesus.  It is direct, concrete, straightforward.  It is striking and unsettling to hear.  It is harder still to do.  Looking around we know that no one is perfect.  Looking at ourselves is more uncomfortable to know that we haven’t been the difference makers, the light of the world, the holy people that Jesus calls us to be, but instead have blended in and avoided the task, and have settled for less.  I’m sorry that this is not a feel-good kind of talk.  There is an opportunity to reclaim this a little bit as we soon embark on our journey of Lent, something the rest of the world doesn’t do.  It’s a chance for us to reclaim some of our holiness and practice and work on these instructions of Jesus today.  There is a priest who for his homily, said simply: “love one another as Christ loved us,” and then sat down.  He did this week after week after week.  It was nice at first, a short homily, a chance to get out for dinner or breakfast early, but it got old and boring fast.  “Why don’t you say anything different?” his parishioners asked.  The priest replied, “I’m going to keep saying the same thing until you start actually living differently: love one another… as Christ loved us.” Be different, be set apart, be holy for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

Readings for Sunday, February 19, 2023