Lectors in the English-speaking world fear this day. For on this day they must read the word “peculiarly” out loud, in public, without seeming like they have a speech impediment.
“The Lord is making this agreement with you: you are to be a people peculiarly his own.” (Deut. 26:18)
The phrase “people peculiarly his own” is sometimes translated as “people who are a treasured possession.” That’s more palatable, because it makes us feel good to be treasured by God.
But honestly, I like “peculiar” better because it communicates something we in the 21st century need to hear: because we are God’s people, we need to be different—different to the point of seeming unusual, out-of-place, and out-of-step with the society around us.
That’s what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel, the famous passage where he tells us to love our enemies, not just our friends. “If you greet your brother and sister only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?”
Are we unusually, peculiarly Christian?
If you enjoy a semi-pornographic chick flick, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
If you buy ridiculously-priced craft beer, without a thought of giving to the poor, what is so unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
If you’re pridefully snobbish toward the rabble who shop at [insert crappy local store here], what is so unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
If you’re addicted to gruesome crime shows on TV, but never read the lives of the saints, what is so unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
Jesus is challenging us to be unusual—peculiarly so. I have heard it said that, in every age, society is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. Are we contradicting society? Or going with the flow?
Being a Christian involves being in the world, but not of it—a concept you can spend your whole life trying to understand. I mean, how peculiar do I need to be? Isn’t it better to fit in, so at least people will give me a hearing? But when I start to fit in, am I no longer swimming against the tide of society?
What about loving our enemies? I am reminded of Cardinal Francis Van Thuan, who dedicated his book Testimony of Hope to his mother: “She was the strong woman who buried her brothers, massacred by traitors, whom she sincerely pardoned, always welcoming them as though nothing had happened.” To me, that is not just peculiar, but miraculous.
Often enough, though, we struggle just to love our friends and family—the annoying uncle, an addicted childhood friend, or a wayward adult child. To me, it is refreshing to encounter someone who is unfailingly kind to everyone he meets, friends and strangers alike. The daily practice of that unusual level of charity is a preparation to love one’s enemies when the time comes, as the cardinal’s mother did.
For the rest of Lent, with God’s grace, I’m trying to be more peculiar. I want to be more influenced by the Gospel and the saints than by the Oscars and the stars. Hopefully, people will know I am a Christian by my love.
Sam Alzheimer lives in Valdosta, Georgia with his wife and four children. He has worked within the Church for 17 years, and is the president of Vianney Vocations, an organization that promotes the Catholic priesthood.