On living the radical call of the Gospel in a polarized world

“YOU shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Leviticus: 17-18)

More and more, we seem to live in a polarized world as we experience wide differences in views on politics and religion among people. This situation has caused so much anger, bitterness, dissatisfaction, and quandary in individuals.

And in this milieu, the questions that we grapple with are: How can we respect one another despite our differences? How can we live harmoniously and still hope together for a better world? How do we build bridges to resolve conflicts?

Going deeper in the light of this Sunday’s Gospel, Ronald Rolheiser presents the same moral and human challenges by asking these related questions:  “How do I not let a bitter word ruin my day? How do I not demonize others when they oppose me? How do I remain sympathetic when I’m misunderstood? How do I remain warm in the face of bitterness? How do I not give in paranoia when I feel threatened? How do I forgive someone who doesn’t want my forgiveness? How do I stop myself from slamming the door of my heart in the face of coldness and rejection? How do I forgive others when my own heart is bitter in self-pity? How do I really love and forgive as Jesus did?”

As always, Jesus asks us to be radical in our response to these challenges. We hear this admonition in this Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to relate with people beyond our families and friends, even those that we dislike. He tells us to be perfect as his Father, who makes the sun rise on the bad and the good.

If there one thing to console us who try to live this radical call of the Gospel, this is what “holiness” means: It’s more than praying on our knees or coming to church. It’s more than speaking a pious language and biblical verses. It’s more than giving our weekly church donations. It’s more than being good people and citizens by faithfully following the rules of the church and the government.  It’s to be “distinct” or “separate” from this world by living out the extreme mandate of the Gospel: to offer no resistance to one who is evil”; “to hand over your cloak as well” to “anyone who wants to go to law with you over your tunic,” to turn the other cheek if “someone strikes you on your right cheek,” and  “to go for two miles if “anyone press you into service for one mile.”

Reginald H. Fuller makes this matter clear in his exegesis on this Sunday’s First Reading from the Book of Leviticus (LV 19:1-2, 17-18). He explains: “Holiness means separateness, distinctiveness, from the world. It was first of all the quality of YHWH. Then, by making Israel his people, YHWH made them holy too. This is not expressed here but is presupposed by the context of the Old Testament Law, given as it is after the exodus; it is however made clear, as far as Christian Church is concerned, in the second reading: ‘God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’”

Indeed, radical Christianity is the mark of true holiness. If we cannot reach this perfection, may we at least try our best!

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From a Filipino immigrant family, Reverend Rodel G. Balagtas was ordained to the priesthood from St. John’s Seminary in 1991. He served as Associate Pastor at St. Augustine, Culver City (1991-1993); St. Martha, Valinda (1993-1999); and St. Joseph the Worker, Canoga Park (1999-2001). In 2001, he served as Administrator Pro Tem of St. John Neumann in Santa Maria, CA, until his appointment as pastor of ImmAaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles, in 2002, which lasted 12 years. His term as Associate Director of Pastoral Field Education at St. John’s Seminary began in July 2014.

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