Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
Year A - Epiphany 6 - Sunday, February 16, 2014
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“Whoever has looked at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery...” I can never hear this phrase without thinking of Jimmy Carter – perhaps the most sincere president the United States has ever had. When some interviewer asked him how he had sinned, he responded, sincerely, that he had look at women with lust in his heart... It was an answer that the general public was not entirely ready to hear.
And in some ways that is the nature of this Gospel passage – its a bunch of stuff that we're not necessarily ready to hear – at least I'm not ready to hear... If I experience lust, I'm a rapist... If I experience anger, I'm a murderer... I should be tearing out my eyes and cutting off my hands... all this in something we call “Gospel” - that is “good news...”
But if we spend a little time with Matthew and with the context of this particular passage, it is perhaps better news than at first glance.
There was great concern at Matthew's time and in his community with how to relate to the law – meaning the Torah. Jesus uses the compound phrase of the law and the prophets. It our language we would use the word scripture.
The heart of this concern was that faithful people were abandoning the law, or perhaps even worse, changing it... In today's parlance, they were revisionists... they were unfaithful... unlawful... not to be trusted.
Keep in mind is that knowing and studying the law, meditating upon the law day and night as the psalms put it, was the way that faithful people could know God. The law was the only way to know God. So faithful people who truly loved God loved the law.
If we were alive in Matthew's time, given who we are and our earnest and real desire to know God, I think many of us would have been great lovers of the law. So Matthew is really talking to us.
The reading this morning starts in mid-thought. Matthew is in the process of preparing faithful people for the time between the Crucifixion (which by the time Mathew is writing has in fact has already happened, but in the narrative which Matthew is writing is yet to come) and the second coming.
Matthew begins with Jesus asserting that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law will still be the law, but the relationship will be changed. Those who love God by loving the law will be changed.
The nature of that change is gathered up in one seemingly harmless word: righteousness. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, or we are doomed. When it comes to loving the law, the scribes and Pharisees really were the most accomplished. This is a very high bar. These are very righteous people. Greater righteousness is not an easy thing.
But the real question is what does greater righteousness even mean? And, conveniently for us, that is the question we are hearing answered in this morning's reading.
Rather than abolishing the law, Jesus is radicalizing the law. The question of greater righteousness is answered in a radicalized response to the law... radical righteousness.
“You have heard it said... it was also said... it was said to those of ancient times...” Jesus gives us this phrase in variation several times. “But I say...” Each time Jesus takes a well known piece of law and radicalizes it.
It is not enough to refrain from murder. Jesus radicalizes this into a way of life that does not even tolerate anger... doesn't tolerate abuse... name calling... insults... The boundary is moved from not murdering to not having any ill will.
The discourse on adultery and divorce is challenging. But we have to remember that, at the time, adultery was a property crime and marriage was a legal contract. This is not a discussion of sexual morality. But the radicalization that Jesus undertakes makes marriage something much more than just a legal contract which can be made and terminated. Adultery becomes more than violation of property rights. Its not a legal issue – its a spiritual issue. And its an issue of how I relate to other people.
Jesus manages, in a discussion which begins with his assertion that nothing changes, to change just about everything. For while the law may stay the same, our relationship with the law is entirely new. Jesus shifts the focus from keeping the letter of the law in outward and visible ways, to living in the spirit of the law.
Jesus gives us a great insight into what living in that spirit might mean. For notice that each of the illustrations has to do with an issues of justice – of how we live in relationship to other people. None of these illustrations have to do with issues of religious ritual, of purity – of how we live in relationship to God.
“You have heard that it was said that you shall not swear falsely... but I say don't swear at all. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” This might be the greatest radicalization of all. For Jesus calls us to unconditional truthfulness. We can't stand behind some form of defense. We can't shield our selves. We can't shade our meaning. Yes or no. I have a vary hard time in a world where the word “maybe” is not in use...
I heard Br Don Bisson, our favorite Marist Brother, speak recently about the nature of change. He believes that change can have one of two primary characteristics. Change can be translational. Or change can be transformational. And of course change is essential for our lives as followers of Jesus – we must be made new, be changed.
Translational change is like when the bones of St John Chrysostom were moved to Constantinople. Those bones were translated. And transformational change is like when Ezekiel prophesied to the valley of dry bones and they took on sinew and flesh and became living beings. Those bones were transformed.
Jesus' teaching in this passage of the Gospel is transformational. Jesus is turning to the body of dry bones that is the law and saying take on sinew and flesh and become a living being. Its no longer about refraining from murder, its about living in love with other people. Its not about refraining from adultery, its about loving people. Its not about divorce, its about commitment to another person.
Before this transformation we could follow God's commandments, decrees, and ordinances as a way of loving God. Now we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves – it is the only way that we can love God. And however we love scripture, the law and the prophets, that love can only be as rich as our love our love of our brothers and sisters. Jesus has radicalized our way of loving God.
This is not something unique in the passage of scripture. It is the message Jesus keeps giving us time and again. And it is a message that starts in the prophets. A troubled and contrite heart – a heart that is ready to love – is the sacrifice God wants from us. Jesus' radicalization of the understanding of the law is simply another way of hearing the good news.
So what about that part in this morning's reading where Jesus talks the leaving your gifts at the altar while you go and reconcile with your brother. Or plucking out your wandering eye. Or the severed right hands... What might Jesus be up to?
It is interesting that sometimes we, as Christians, are interested in taking things literally and sometimes not. When Jesus says we are to feed the hungry and cure the sick – there I think he is being quite literal, though lots of Christians want to understand that as a call to bring the “food” of the Gospel to the “spiritually hungry.”
But here, with these very draconian suggestions, I think Jesus is making it clear that he is not being literal. We will look with lust, we will covet, we will fail to tell the truth and we may even swear a false oath. And the way-over-the-top notion of cutting off our hands and plucking out our eyes is not a call to do something outrageous.
Jesus is telling us that these sins are no greater and no less than any other. They merit the most extreme punishment – we're no better than the worst of sinners. Our salvation rests not on our merit but on God's grace. And that is true for everyone. I think this is just Jesus' way of saying “get over yourselves...”
Because when we get over ourselves, then we can abandon ourselves to this radical plan of greater righteousness.