In the first reading from yesterday’s Mass (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18), God talks to his people and asks of them certain things, all of which look really familiar to anyone who has been a follower of God for more than a month: He commands us to be holy. He tells us not to hate our brother in our heart, but to reason with our neighbors. He asks us to know take vengeance or to bear any grudge, but to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And all of that sounds good, for obvious reasons: as followers of God, we’re expected to imitate Him and His mercy towards all people, not just the good ones or the ones who follow the law or the ones who let us cut in front of them in rush hour traffic. If we’re holy, if we don’t hold any hatred or grudges towards others, then those who are lacking in a relationship with God might start getting the idea that He may not be so bad after all. They might start asking us about Him, start wanting to go to church, start wanting to have a relationship with Him, the true goal of evangelization.
But this passage is mostly good because in these words, God protects us.
We’re used to God placing limits on us — or rather, we’re used to thinking that God places limits on us to hold us back. But He doesn’t – He does it to free us. When He tells us to save sex for marriage, He’s not doing it to keep us heavily physically frustrated and to keep us from having a good time in bonding with someone else, He’s doing it to protect us from the hearts that break more for having given such a thing to someone who doesn’t want us for the long haul. When He tells us not to steal, it’s not to keep us from having things we want, but to protect us from the idea that He won’t be able to provide what we need.
A way I like to think about it is the stove analogy: we’re told when we’re kids not to touch the stove. Not because we don’t deserve to touch the stove, or because we’re not good enough or worthy enough to touch the stove, but because if we touch the stove when it’s hot it’ll hurt, really badly. We can get scarred by it, both physically and emotionally. Maybe we won’t ever want to cook again. But God wants us to cook, just carefully.
And so it is with the message we heard from the reading. “Sure,” God says, “It’s a good idea to not harbor grudges or to hate, because I don’t do those things, and you will do these things less and less the more holy you get. But it’s also a good idea not to do it because it’ll hurt you. It hurts to hold grudges in your heart; it hurts to hate so much that you forget your own name. It hurts you to plan out ways to hurt your brother and not to treat others the way you would want to be treated. It doesn’t feel good. So don’t do it.”
A lot of times I get caught up in the idea that if I don’t do something God wants, that’s it. I’ve exhausted the limits of His mercy; I’ve done that one thing that He just can’t forgive. So when I read passages like this and remember times when I’ve not done as He’s asked, I feel like I’ve let Him down; but when I look at it from other perspective, then it helps me to remember God as a loving father who wants what’s truly best for us: a life of holiness, a life free of hate and worry. Free from a hot stove.