Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
RCL - Epiphany 7A - February 20, 2011
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Today we find Jesus in Matthew's Gospel in a rather contrary mood... We have heard one thing, but Jesus is here to tell us something different... This section of Matthew begins with Jesus saying “do not think that I have come to abolish the Law...” and then sharing a series of 6 antithetical reflections: You have heard it said do not murder, but I say don't even think about it... You have heard it said do not commit adultery, but I say... and so on.
On a purely superficial level, it appears that Jesus, true to his word, is not doing away with the law, but is, rather, delivering a new type of “hyper-law” - far more demanding than that old law ever was. Under this new notion of law, even poor Jimmy Carter had to cast himself an adulterer... I dare say, none of us are safe.
And so we come to today's reading of the good news... You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer them the other cheek as well. If they want your coat, give them your cloak as well. If they demand one mile, go two...
There is a major shift in the nature of Jesus' antithetical offerings. But I'm not sure they are getting any better... I'm almost certainly going to end up an adulterer and a murderer... now I have to be ready to be beaten up and stripped naked... Dale Carnegie would have a few things to say about this approach that Jesus is taking to winning friends and influencing people...
What on earth is Jesus up to? What can we do to make sense of these teachings?
Jesus may not have come to abolish the law, but Jesus is no lover of the status quo.
The law, in faithful Jewish observance, was as lofty as you could get. Knowing the law, loving the law, following the law was as devout and Godly as you could be. There was no greater love of God then a profound and careful observance of the law.
And along comes Jesus saying, essentially, that the law is far from the highest ideal – it is the lowest common denominator... it is the absolute bare minimum... Jesus is demanding something much more complete than adherence to the law.
Look how provocative Jesus is being: Every antithesis begins “You have heard it said...” That's shorthand for you have heard it said in holy scripture: If Jesus were to begin his challenges with “The Bible says one thing, but I say something else” just imagine the discomfort he could generate in a good “Bible-believing” Sunday congregation church...
I think that is just exactly what Jesus wants to do. He is creating maximum discomfort among the maximally pious crowd. Jesus is preaching to the choir, as it were, but the sermon is not the desired message.
In a sense, what Jesus is saying is “I haven't come to end the law – but I have come to end the way you think about the law... the way you live the law.”
Just in case we've forgotten what is at the heart of the law, the Lectionary gives us this wonderful passage from Leviticus: You shall not defraud, you shall not slander, you shall not hate in your heart any of your kin... you shall not take vengeance, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That is the law and it is surely beautiful.
And along comes Jesus: You have heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy – but I say love your enemies and pray for your persecutors...
Jesus makes an interesting leap in this statement. Scripture, in Jesus time, was the Hebrew scripture we know as Old Testament. And none of Jesus' listeners would, in fact, have heard from Hebrew scripture that they were to hate their enemies – Hebrew scripture does not have any such command. To be sure, Hebrew scripture talks about God hating the unrighteous, but the faithful are not called to hate. Jesus knows that.
I have to wonder if it was the case at Jesus time, just as it is today, that some folks are very certain about what is in the bible, and they are just as certainly wrong.
I suspect, for example, a lot of good and faithful Christians would not flinch if I made the following statement: “The Bible says love the sinner, but hate the sin...” It's a phrase that probably traces its roots to St Augustine, but not to scripture. Yet its freely bandied about in religious circles and so it “sounds” plausible. Or if I asserted that “The Bible tells us that God helps those who help themselves.” Such an assertion might draw little protest from many a congregation – though the quote actually has its roots in Aesop's Fables, not in scripture... In scripture, God helps those who have no other help.
Is Jesus messing with the devout? You have heard it said... hate your enemies. We all have probably heard that said, or something close to it, but Jesus is quoting something other than proper Jewish tradition – and I think that may be part of his purpose. Some of what we take for law is just not, as we learn in Porgy and Bess, necessarily so...
Jesus may be working to rattle some of our assumptions, but that is incidental. The real purpose seems to be rattle our conclusions. The real effect is to change our way of life.
In this Epiphanytide, we have been preparing for the Gospel with a fragment of a hymn by Ephrem of Syria. The hymn reflects on the way in which incarnation speaks of God's grace. Incarnation doesn't speak of God's glory – for there isn't anything particularly glorious about being born a fragile, human child. It doesn't speak of God's might, for it is a powerless act. It doesn't speak of God's infinite nature, for it is very finite. But it does speak endlessly of God's grace.
And that is what I find in today's Gospel. Jesus, fully human, calling us to be more fully human... calling us to be more filled with God's grace. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
The reading ends with an ominous sounding instruction: Be perfect, as God in heaven is perfect. Using the word “perfect” is a bit jarring. In this entire Gospel passage Jesus has rather firmly established human imperfection. If we have thought about murder or adultery, then we are the same as murderers and adulterers... so where is this idea of being perfect coming from?
If perfect means a spotless living of the law, then we are doomed.
But perfect has a second meaning – a richer and more complex meaning... the meaning of wholeness or completeness.
We use the word in this way these days normally in a negative context – we talk about a perfect idiot, or a perfect disaster, or a perfect storm, for example. But you get the idea.
This is what Jesus is talking about – Jesus is calling us to be wholehearted, complete, and total in our love of God and, at the same time, our love of God's creation, most especially of our fellow human beings.
This idea of perfection is a process more than a destination. After all, a perfect idiot is perfect because he keeps getting better at it... he is improving the process of being an idiot...
Now doesn't that give us something to aspire to...
Jesus cuts right to the heart of what it is to be a follower, of what it is to be faithful. We must be prepared to change how we understand our tradition. We must be prepared to change the way we respond to others by being ever more willing to respond in a way of sacrifice and love. The way to a deeper and more loving relationship with God is through a deeper and more loving relationship with our brothers and sisters – realizing that everyone is included in that category of brothers and sisters...
Jesus has liberated us from a human ideal of perfectionism and replaced it with the Godly ideal of perfect wholeness. And so let us be perfect.