In the first reading from Leviticus God said, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God am holy.”
There is a bit of ancient law behind that statement. God was preparing the people to enter into a special relationship with him. It was to be a relationship very like the closest relationship we are generally aware of, namely a marriage.
A marriage is much more than just going together or living together or living in a relationship. In a marriage the two parties assume responsibility for each other’s debts, and health. Legally, they become one.
There is a special name for a relationship as final as a marriage. It is called a covenant. It is distinguished from a mere contract in which parties exchange a house or a car for money, with each side giving something and getting something. In a covenant the parties give themselves to each other. That is clearly put in words in a Catholic marriage ceremony where the priest asks, “Have you come here freely, without reservations, to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”
In both our covenant with God and in marriage the perfection of their relationship comes in the two parties becoming one.
I started off here talking about the first reading where God is telling Moses that he wants to enter into a marriage-like covenant with the people. Now. we must notice one important difference between the covenant God was proposing and a marriage. In a successful marriage covenant the parties become one by each side giving a little: he goes along with some of her ways, and she goes along with some of his ways. They wink at each other’s shortcomings.
In the covenant God was proposing to enter into with the Israelites there could be no question of God winking at the people’s shortcomings. To become one with God they would need to become like him, because he couldn’t become like them.
From feudal times in Europe we have another name for a monarch. He is a suzerain. When people entered into a covenant with their suzerain there was no question of his changing his ways to become like them. In a suzerain covenant the two can only become one by the lesser party adapting itself to the Lord’s ways. They had to wear his livery.
The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes are not rules that God arbitrarily made up. No, they flow naturally from his natures which is all loving and all just.
That is what is behind his saying, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God am holy.”
Actually, God entered into two covenants with mankind: the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Today’s Gospel compares what was demanded of primitive people in the time of Moses with what Jesus was demanding of us.