Following on last week’s column which contrasted those who follow God with those who don’t, two of this week’s readings take us to the nitty-gritty of faith, and one gives us the basis for the unique behavior that flows from that faith.

During my father’s recent funeral homily, I mentioned that he most remembered and spoke about occasions when someone did something unexpectedly good for him or those he loved — like his eighth-grade teacher, a young Brother of Mary who heroically (but unsuccessfully) tried to stop his pastor from physically abusing him and his classmates, and the funeral home owner who refused to send him a bill for his infant son’s funeral.

His message to us children was clear: we forget the expected; we remember the unexpected.

Kingly surprise

That’s why the Israelites never forgot King David. His career revolved around doing the unexpected. In the first reading, for instance, he spares the life of someone (King Saul) who’s trying to kill him (I Sam 26: 2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23). Abishai’s whispered comment is essential to understanding David’s merciful action: "God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day." In other words, "You can do what you want to Saul and get away with it."

Rarely do we find ourselves in such dramatic situations. Yet before we conclude the reading is irrelevant to us, notice that Jesus offers us insights into how we can do unexpected things on similar, more frequently experienced occasions (Lk 6: 27-38).

"To you who hear," He proclaims, "I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."

Then He gets into particulars: "To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Those who do the unexpected almost always act freely. Theologians tell us that God judges us only on those actions which we freely perform. "For if you love those who love you," Jesus asks, "what credit is that to you?....And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?....If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you?"

Good and evil

Yet someone can also act freely and unexpectedly to hurt people. What motivates us to do unexpected good instead of evil?

Paul supplies us with an answer in the second reading (I Cor 15: 45-49). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we live in a unique environment. We’re no longer controlled by that "first Adam" who was "from the earth." We’re no longer confined to the "earthly."

We’ve become descendants of "the last Adam, a life-giving spirit." Because this second Adam is "from heaven," we’ve become heavenly. "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one," Paul reminds the Corinthians, "we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one."

All students of Scripture realize that we refer to God as being "holy" because God is different. God is "other" than we are. God doesn’t think like us or act like us. God is a completely unique force in our lives.

Paul believes all followers of the risen Jesus have taken a step into God’s heavenly realm. Christians are different because they "front for" the holy, risen Jesus. Behavior we once thought possible only in heaven is now possible here on earth because the heavenly one is in and among us.

No wonder my father remembered such holy actions. For a short period of time, right here and now, they transported him into an environment of holiness that most people expect to experience only in the afterlife.

(2/19/04)