Reflection on the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
If the book of Leviticus was written during the time the Israelites were in exile, it is interesting to hypothesize about all of the rulemaking in the book of Leviticus. In a time of fear and uncertainty, did rules give people a sense of comfort knowing what they should do? Or was it done to separate the Israelites from those they were living with who were “the other?” It is interesting to note that the Scripture refers to “your fellow citizen” and “your people.” It is not clear to me that the rules being outlined include everyone – the near and far neighbor – if they are not Israelites.
Jesus also lived in a time of many religious and cultural differences. We have heard repeatedly about the animosity between the Romans, Syrians, Samaritans, Egyptians and Jews. Syria and Egypt were considered “valuable possessions” of the Roman Empire and so they were occupied by Roman legions who managed the territories and enforced Roman law. The Jewish people had to learn to live in the Roman Empire, not as a free people, but with some territory and space as long as they were loyal to Rome and peaceful.
It was not easy, but it only got more and more difficult after Jesus was born. Herod slaughtered innocent children to try to rid his territory of any possible new leader. The Jewish leaders did not like large crowds following Jesus because their authority and control seemed threatened. If Rome knew about Jesus’ popularity, they might have added Roman legions to the territory.
Today, as in other times in history, we have empires feeling threatened again. Russia, China, the United States, parts of the white race who don’t seem to know they have never been the dominant or most populous race in the world. And like all threatened empires, they are desperately trying to hold on to their control through intimidation, violence and force. Their trust is in power – the more the better – not in democracy or any principles espoused by Jesus. And throughout history we have churches that are desperately trying to maintain control over members and separating the believers from the non-believers.
Sometimes the institution – whether it is a government or a religion – tries to stay the course by writing more rules so people know what is allowed and what will “save” you. That is supposed to provide guidance, certainty and security. But too often we have seen how that does not work. Lies and half truths erode faith and trust. Rights are curtailed.
So today’s readings tell us that a different approach and response is asked of believers. The reading from Leviticus reminds us, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus has redefined who our neighbor is so that it is expansive and inclusive.
I sometimes find it hard not to despise some of the people leading the charge to maintain some empire – whether it is Putin, the Chinese leader or white supremacists – through the use of violence, intimidation, persecution and systematic discrimination. This Gospel reminds me that I need to pray for these people that I despise and pray that I do not lose sight of the Gospel message with a hardening of my own heart and mind.
And I see how hard it is for Palestinians and Jews to follow this Old Testament admonition in the face of generations of insecurity and distrust. I also see the United States turning away from its roots as a nation of immigrants who welcomed other immigrants. I am aware that I would not be here today if my great-great grandfather had not escaped the potato famine in Ireland and been allowed to come to the U.S. as a poor person seeking a better chance of survival. How many Irish, Italian, Polish and Bosnian immigrants came here in the last century after waiting in line at an embassy to get all the paperwork in order first?
In the light of this Gospel, borders seem somewhat artificial as a reason not to love more expansively, heal the wounded and care for the persecuted.
Climate change is a stark reminder that we are all part of God’s one beautiful creation here on planet Earth. Just as the sun rises and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, so do the effects of climate change fall on all who inhabit this planet. Borders will not protect us from the effects. Wealth may delay the direct effects for some people for some time, but wealth and power do not buy immunity from climate change. We have brought it on the human race with our foolish thinking that what happens in one place does not affect us. We have tried to live out that foolish thinking by believing that we can build walls which will protect us. We know without a doubt that we are all God’s people, and we need each other and God to live on this planet.