Paul Knitter's Homily for February 23, 2014

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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 23, 2014




A.   I don’t know if any of you noticed, but the opening lines of our first reading and the closing lines of the third reading – one written centuries before the other – are really saying the same thing.  And what they are saying is something incredible for Christian ears, something that seems to contradict what Christians (and Jews) are usually taught about God and about humans:

       “You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.”  Lev. 19:2

       “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father-Mother is perfect.”  Matt 5:48

       We are called to be as holy and as perfect as God!  We are called to be what God is: holy, the author of Leviticus tells us.  Jesus pushes the envelope even more: perfect!

       This implies that the qualities or characteristics of God are to be human qualities and characteristics. It suggests – I think it means — that God wants to be God in and through us.  God wants to act in us, as us.  God wants “to God” in us.  God, it seems, needs us to really be God in this world.


B.   If you allow me to put on my theologian’s hat for a moment: this puts into question the dualism that has characterized much of Christian theology and spirituality.  By dualism I mean the way Christian and Western thought has insisted on the transcendence of God, the difference between divinity and humanity that has become a gap, a separation, between the Divine and the human, the Infinite and the finite.

       This dualism has been made only worse through the doctrine of original sin when it is taken to mean a rift between the holy God and fallen, sinful humanity.


       Our readings today are suggesting that if God and the world are indeed distinct, that doesn’t mean they can get along without each other.   God seeks to God in us.  God and we are to act together in order to act at all.  God and the world – co-inhere.


       These are matters to explore more deeply.


C.   To return to our readings: how is it that God wants to God in us? How is it that we can embody the holiness and the perfection of God?




A.   I think both readings are pretty clear: we are to live God’s life and be God’s holiness  primarily (not exclusively) in our relationships with each other.


       First Testament/Leviticus: it’s all about having compassion for our neighbor, truly caring for his/her well-being. 


       The final verse of the reading sums it all up: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We are to love our neighbor exactly as we love ourselves. Which means that we must start with a healthy love of ourselves. And yet we can’t really love ourselves without loving our neighbor. We are to love ourselves by loving our neighbors. 

       Here we see that this message was not original to Jesus. He learned it from his Jewish parents and teachers.


       But in true Jewish fashion, we hear that compassion for our neighbor calls us to justice for our neighbor. No compassion without justice – and the reading goes into the particularities of justice: the private property of your harvest is not just yours; leave some for others.


       Second Testament/Matthew: Jesus repeats the same message, but he, as it were, pushes the envelope even more: he calls for a love of neighbor that not only requires justice but goes beyond justice.   He defines our “neighbor” not only as our “kin” or “any of your people,” but also as your enemy.  We are to love those who hate us, pray for those who cause us problems.  Only in this way can we really be children of God and live God’s life.


B.   Again, allow me a bit of theological reflection:  All this means that to live God’s life, to be “connected” with, to experience and know the reality of what we call God in this life is primarily a matter of orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.


       It’s a matter not primarily of right-knowing but of right-doing, not primarily of doctrine but of action.  Please, the knowing and the doctrine are important, but they follow, they make sense, only after, or as part of, acting.  “Right belief” follows “right action.”  And the “right action” is primarily compassion, a caring for others, that both requires and goes beyond justice.


       So as my teacher, Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., used to tell us: the Reality that we are trying to get at with the word “God” is utterly beyond our full comprehension; God will therefore necessarily have “many names” or even, for some people, no name. 

       But there is one way in which we can know pretty sure whether a person is connected with and living God’s life: and that is how they are acting, whether they are loving, or trying to love and care about others.  If they are, then they are connected with, they are living God’s life, no matter what they say about God, even though they may deny God (or the image of God that has been taught to them.) 

       Such people Rahner, with a twinkle in his German eyes, called “anonymous theists” – real believers in God in their actions even though they deny God in words.  There may be a lot of anonymous theists in bars on Saturday night, Rahner said.  Just as there might be a lot of “anonymous atheists” in Church on Sunday morning – people who in words say they believe in God but in their deeds lack real caring and love for others.


       But back to our readings: What these two readings are suggesting is that the Reality we call God is an activity more than an entity.  Or as the cliché has it: God is much more a verb than a noun.


       If that sounds too cutesy or new agey, I give you one of the two “definitions of God” that we have in the NT:  God is love.  God is the interconnecting energy of love.  When we love, we’re godding – whether we know it or not, whether we recognize this as God or not.





A.   The question is unavoidable: how can we really live this kind of life? To love others as we love ourselves?  It contradicts what “the world” tell us. It’s foolishness, as Paul recognizes in his letter.  It’s impossible.  It’s impractical.  It can’t be done.


B.   This is where our second reading from Paul is essential: It is possible to be as holy and as perfect as God because – because we already are. We are already temples of God.  This is a powerful image and symbol: temples of God. The Holy Spirit is within us, part of us, a resource that is always available.


– Here Paul is presenting an understanding of God or the Divine that is thoroughly non-dualistic.  The Reality we call God is not only “the most High” as we hear in Leviticus, but also the “most intimate,” dwelling in our very being.  Paul tells us that the Divine Spirit “dwells” in us. That means that we “dwell” in God. Mutual  indwelling.


       Here we are touching on the mysticism that is the foundation of Christianity (really, of any living religion):  We are called not just to believe in God or to obey God, but to be the very holiness and perfection of God – to experience and feel the divine as a reality and a resource given to us in our very nature as humans.


C.   Therefore, the “orthopraxis” or “right practice’ that we are called to is not only the ethical practice of loving our neighbor, but also the mystical practice of prayer and contemplation – of getting in touch with the Spirit that dwells within us, with what Christians call the Christ that lives in us and as us.

       The more we can mystically get in touch with the divine that lives in each of us, the more we will feel empowered and required to love our neighbor.  The more we love our neighbor, the more we will feel the need for the silence of prayer and contemplation.

       In contemplation and action, we move a little more deeply into being holy and perfect as God is holy and perfect.


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