be holy, be perfect, be merciful


I am quite fascinated by the idea of the evolution of consciousness, and I’d like to suggest that it goes along with the evolution of our understanding of God as well as the evolution of morality. I’m reminded of Theodore Parker’s famous quote, paraphrased by Dr. King and loved by President Obama:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

In this case you could say, the arc of salvation history is long and it bends toward mercy.

In some way we start out with the law of reciprocal retribution or retaliation––that is, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as the Old Testament allows. As a matter of fact this is mentioned in three different places, in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[1] Of course we know as Christians, as followers of Jesus, that this is not enough, as we hear in the gospel (Mt 5:38-48).

But even that, reciprocal retribution or retaliation, was kind of an evolved view. Remember, for example, when Lamech says in the Book of Genesis, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.[2] (You will guess where else that comes up––in Jesus teaching about forgiveness!) This tends to be the rule of war––remember “Shock and Awe”? Or the way the State of Israel bombs the Palestinians every time an incident happens, usually disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense. That’s the way we human beings normally operate, to let someone know who’s the strongest, the mightiest.

But then along comes Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, in the 18th century before the Common Era, with a new code of conduct that taught that if someone pierced the eye of a free citizen, their eye would be pierced; and if someone broke the bone of a free citizen, their bone would be broken; and if someone broke the tooth of a free citizen, their tooth would be broken”––and only that. This seems to be origin of the law of retaliation in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy––an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth––but only that. It actually already represents a softening of the style of justice in Genesis.

As we get deeper into the history of the Hebrew people, we learn instead that Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.[3] The just no longer get or take their own vengeance, but they do pray that the Lord will avenge them, as we hear so often in the psalms. These are many of the verses of the psalms that, after a great debate, many Christians have decided need to be left out of our liturgical use of the psalms, everything from asking God to smite our enemies to praying that someone will kill your enemy’s children.[4] Still, it’s an advance in consciousness, an evolution in morality––Vengeance is God’s. And maybe also a growth in understanding of who God is, what God is like, what it means to be holy as the Lord your God is holy.

But there is this little known commentary in the Targum. (The Targum was the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible.) Translators, so they say, always like to add a little something. In this case the translator is translating a little non-consequential admonition from Leviticus––You shall not immolate an animal and its little one on the same day––and the translator adds this comment: “My people, children of Israel, just as your Father is merciful in heaven, you also be merciful on earth.” Somebody, some unknown translator, stumbled on the heart of the Law and the fulfillment of the prophets. Did Jesus read this or hear it? Of course this teaching comes to us in two different forms––in Leviticus Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy[5] becomes in Matthew Jesus saying ‘Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ whereas Luke has Jesus say, ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ This is why some scripture scholars think that Luke’s version of this saying is closer to the original. But really the lesson is that to be holy, be perfect, be merciful––they all mean the same thing. And indeed, everything before this in Matthew’s version has been about mercy, too. To be perfect like God means to be merciful, to love your enemy, to pray for those who persecute you.

And here is where the discussion about the nature of God comes in. What does it mean to be “holy,” as Leviticus posits? Does it mean to be set apart? What does it mean to be “perfect,” as Matthew posits? Jesus radically transforms our way of understanding and living the imitation of God. It is always instructive when Jesus adapts the words of scripture, and in this case he lets us know that it is God’s mercy, God’s compassion that we are supposed to imitate in order to be perfect more than God’s set-apartness. And the meaning of this compassion/mercy is summed up in an Aramaic word that Jesus would have used: rahamim, which is quite close to the Hebrew word rahum, a word that describes what a woman feels toward the child she carries in her womb and the Greek word the gospels use–– splanjnizomai, which means very much the same visceral thing. All three Abrahamic traditions come to this understanding, that this is the heart of the covenant, summed up in the beautiful responsorial psalm that we used in conjunction with this reading, The Lord is kind and merciful; hence the Muslim tradition begins every surah of the Qur’an with the words Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim––which comes from that same Semitic root as rahum, “In praise of Allah all merciful and compassionate.” Hence Jesus’ ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’

I was thinking how this applies to the Church too. What does it mean for the Church to be holy? Does it mean to be set apart? Yes, like a city built on a hill, a city of mercy and justice, a city of moral uprightness. But when we think instead that it means pageantry and costumer-y, as Bruno wrote in Future of Wisdom, that’s when the Church tends to lapse into an “intermediate world of institutional pseudo-reality” and “a solemn out-of-date world of clerical artificiality, tediously mediating between” God and humanity, “two realities which are already one.[6] That church is a comic fantasy, he says; the reality is the body of Christ, of which we are a part, not apart. What does it mean for the church to be holy? Surely the Holy Father suggests that instead of meaning set apart, it means the church should be so close to the poor that it “smells like the sheep.” It means to come to the perfection of the Law––love, and in this case, to be merciful, to be compassionate––even toward those who are unlovable.

I listened several times to a recent interview with Representative John Lewis. He was a core leader of the civil rights movement, the one who led the first Selma March on what became known as Bloody Sunday. He said about the Civil Rights Movement, “The movement created what I like to call a non-violent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you.” All of this talk can be just a bunch of pious platitudes until we are really face to face with hatred, with a baseball bat with nails in it or a firebomb. And when I hear these words I know I have a long way to go, when some days I can barely make it out of the refectory or answer an email without snapping at someone.

And how this applies to us: in the Bhagavad Gita, if I understand it, Lord Krishna is telling Arjuna that the ideal is to renounce everything and train your senses and still your mind. But if you can’t do that then at least renounce the fruit of your actions. And if you can’t even do that, then dedicate all the fruits of the your labor to me. I was thinking the Christian version of that, especially the Christian monastic version, may be something similar. This is what it means to be perfect: master your senses, have a tranquil one-pointed mind. If you can’t do that then participate well in all the liturgies and be diligent at your prayers. And if you can’t do that then work really hard in service of your brothers and sisters. And if you can’t do that, just be merciful and compassionate. And if you can’t do that, just do no harm. Just as Evagrius taught that the sure sign of apatheia is agape, so the other way around is true also: path of mercy, the path of selfless love, the path non-violence will surely lead us to Jesus’ own garden of the cross and resurrection and, ultimately, to union with God.

The words of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians were a propos today to guide our prayer[7]: Let’s pray that we could have the courage to be foolish enough in the eyes of the wisdom of the world, to look weak in the eyes of worldly strength, to be set apart only as a city built on a hill, a city of love, a city of mercy, perfect in compassion.


[1] Ex 21:24, 27; Lev 24:20, Dt 19:21.

[2] Gen 4:23-24.

[3] Deut 32:35, quoted in Rom 12:19 and Hb 10:30.

[4] See Ps. 58:6ff., or 137:8-9.

[5] Lev 19:1-2.

[6] Barnhart, Future, 171.

[7] 1 Cor 3:16-23.

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1 Comment

  1. A very thought-provoking and soul-warming homily in these dark, uncertain times. I wish the Church were known more for its mercy and compassion than its position on certain issues. I cannot change the Church; but I can, as you have encouraged me, be more merciful in my daily life.

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