Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Holiness of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 13-14; 1 COR 3:16-23; MT 5:38-48

Our Sunday readings teach us about the holiness of love, the connection between love and holiness.

In the reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will say, “Love your enemy . . . that you may be children of your heavenly Father. . . . Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The connection between love of God and love of neighbor is absolute.

The reading from Leviticus says the same thing, and straightforwardly. “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. . . . You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To be holy, to be united to God, is to love, not hate.


Now, if you are paying close attention, you will notice that the Lectionary has left out a big chunk: we skip from “be holy” in Leviticus 19:1-2 to “love your neighbor” in verses 17-18. What is in between?

The rest of the Gospel reading might make you worry about what else we might find in Leviticus. This is where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. . . . You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”

There is nowhere in the Gospels that so seems to pit Jesus against the Old Testament as this Sunday’s reading. Many people, reading only this, think that the Old Law – given above all precisely in Leviticus – is about hatred and revenge (along with a bunch of really annoying ceremonial rules). Thank God Jesus has saved us from the horrible Old Testament!

But remember that last week we heard Jesus say that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and in last week’s Gospel reading Jesus went to some length to show that his moral teaching is really about intensifying the Old Law, not replacing it. “Thou shalt not kill” becomes “whosoever is angry with his brother.” He does not reject the Law, he doubles down on it.

This is essential to understanding what Jesus says about this week’s Old Law teachings. “An eye for an eye” is not a command of revenge; it is a command that limits revenge. It means, if someone pokes your eye out, you can’t go kill his family, and you shouldn’t be poking out people’s eyes unless they’ve done the same to you. A well-meaning but thoughtless bumper sticker tells us, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” To the contrary, “an eye for an eye” means that if you have two eyes – which most of us do – you have no right ever to poke anyone else in the eye. The Old Law was limiting revenge, not commanding it.

So too when it says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This is a command to love, not to hate. It is a command to hate only your enemy – and it explicitly says that your neighbor is not your enemy. Jesus goes even further, but if we all loved our neighbors and only hated people who (a) were really our enemies and (b) were far enough away not to count as our neighbors – well, we’d be be pretty loving people.


All of this just means that the Old Law is not so ugly after all. Take some time to flip open Leviticus – or the Psalms – and find what it teaches about loving your neighbor. In the part our reading skips over, for example, Leviticus tells God’s people to leave some grain in their fields for the poor. We could learn a lot about love from the Old Testament. We could gain a good foundation for Jesus’ teaching by obeying the Old Testament’s strict law of love.


The reading from First Corinthians takes us deeper into this teaching on love in two ways.

First, practically, it tells us to renounce our own wisdom. How much peace there would be if we held our own opinions a bit more loosely!

But second, and more theoretically, it tells us that we are God’s temple. All I can say is that if you read the whole letter, you will find that it is not speaking primarily about us as individuals, but us as a community, a “people.” The “you” in the reading is plural; the temple is singular.

God dwells among us when we live as community; we worship him only by coming together. This is the deepest meaning of “Church,” and the deepest meaning of the commandment to love.


How does your love or hatred of your neighbors express itself when you come to worship?

The Seven Vices, conclusion: Thinking about Love

image for vicesWe have spent the last seven weeks considering the seven cardinal vices: gluttony, lust, avarice (or greed), sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

This list is the product of centuries of spiritual direction by men who knew the Bible, loved the Church, and seriously pursued their own spiritual life. The list varies somewhat. John Cassian gave the first classic list, in his The Institutes of the Desert Fathers, a book written in the early 400s to introduce monks in France to the wisdom of the monks in the Egyptian desert.

The desert fathers were the first great spiritual heroes of the Christian tradition. For over a hundred years, they had been both praying and talking to one another: a central aspect of the wisdom of the desert was the willingness to learn from others. Cassian uses the image of a bee flying from flower to flower, collecting what each distinct flower has to offer. The point is that no one has all the answers; we get real wisdom by listening to all the great voices.

Sometimes I think modern ideas of spiritual direction can lose some of this richness. In the wisdom of the tradition, no one person knows everything. The “grace of state” that is sometimes evoked now as justification for total submission to a single spiritual director is an idea with no grounds in the Catholic tradition: it is purely modern. Even spiritual direction itself is a concept never once mentioned in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and, so far as I have been able to tell, not practiced in the modern submission-to-one-teacher way until quite recently. My point is not that we shouldn’t have spiritual directors – a spiritual director or regular confessor can be very helpful. The point is that we must go searching for wisdom, and the wisdom of the tradition; no one person can just give us all the answers.

The idea of the traditional list of seven vices is not that this is all you need to know. It’s that we can listen to the wisdom of those who have come before and then think clearly for ourselves


In fact, the list of seven is not Cassian’s. He had eight. The list of seven comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who lived around the year 600. He too was a monk, a disciple of St. Benedict, and a great guide of souls, who had spent time in both the East (Constantinople) and the West (Rome). He well knew the conclusion of St. Benedict’s Rule (my emphasis):

 “Now, we have written this Rule that, observing it in monasteries, we may show that we have acquired at least some moral righteousness, or a beginning of the monastic life.

“On the other hand, he that hastens on to the perfection of the religious life, has at hand the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which leads a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and the New Testaments is not a most exact rule of human life? Or, what book of the holy Cathlic Fathers does not loudly proclaim how we may go straight to our Creator? So, too, the Collations of the Fathers [Cassian’s longer book], and their Institutes [Cassian’s shorter book] and lives [there are many, but St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony was always a favorite], and the rule of our holy Father, Basil – what are they but the monuments of the virtues of exemplary and obedient monks?”

In other words, St. Benedict too was a “bee,” drawing from everything he could, especially Scripture. He does not present himself as the end, but as a beginning.

Gregory read Cassian, as Benedict taught, and came up with his own version, narrowing Cassian’s list of eight vices to seven. (He combined Cassian’s sadness and distraction into sloth, and vainglory and pride into just pride, and added envy.) What we find here is an active mind: thinking about Scripture, learning from the fathers, paying attention to his own and others’ spiritual lives, and using authority to go deeper, not just to sign off on a dead list.


In the end, the spiritual life is very simple: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and therefore love your neighbor as yourself. That’s all there is to it.

What lists like this list of seven can help us do is to appreciate better what true love looks like, and how we often fail to love. The saints who have gone before us simply point out some of the ways we might miss the mark.

How do you travel like a bee from flower to flower? How do you practice gathering the wisdom of Scripture and the Tradition?