Wednesday, 12 February 2014

“You have heard that it was said ...”: a sermon (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Matthew 5:21-48)

I’m tweaking the lessons from the lectionary a bit today. 

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, from Deuteronomy, is a bit longer, beginning about a paragraph earlier than suggested, so as to include these important words from Moses:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

With our Gospel lesson, from Matthew, I’m combining today’s gospel with next Sunday’s gospel, as the two readings are closely connected to each other.  As a result, next week, when I’m not leading worship, you’ll probably hear part of this reading again and will hear completely different insights on that same passage of scripture.  That’s a good thing.  It reminds us that we can always get a variety of insights from scripture and that these various insights are valid, even when they're not identical to each other.

In our gospel lesson, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a series of topical comments.
  • Each comment began with “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times ...” or simply “You have heard that it was said ....” 
  • Jesus then stated some conventional wisdom. 
  • Then, Jesus added, “But I say to you ...”, and then Jesus proceeded to take the conventional wisdom to its next step, in each case raising the ethical stakes dramatically.
In each case, Jesus didn’t deny the earlier laws and practices.  Rather he tried to take each to its next higher level.

To give an example, Jesus said at one point in this passage:

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

In this example:
  • Jesus first stated the conventional wisdom:  “You shall not swear falsely ...”.
  • Jesus then took the matter a step further:  “Do not swear at all ...”, using the word “swear” in its proper meaning of “taking an oath”, rather than the word’s more casual meaning today of “coarse language”.  And the sense of this is that an honest person’s “yes” or “no” should be good enough. 
So Jesus raised the ethical stakes by saying, essentially, that if everyone is honest, there is no need to take solemn oaths in law courts and such places.

Curiously, many religious people ignore this passage of scripture. 
  • They take the view that a person who believes in God needs to take his or her oath in court (or anywhere else) on the Bible or some other sacred text. 
  • They also believe that a person who chooses to make a civil affirmation rather than a religious oath is necessarily a non-believer.
  • That’s not always the case.  A person who takes a civil affirmation  may be a person of Christian  faith who takes this particular passage of scripture particularly seriously.  In fact the provision for civil affirmations was first made available for Quakers, who took their Christian faith very seriously, but had a religious objection to taking oaths.
I know someone who used to be a Federal Senator, and who’s now a priest.  When he was a politician, he never took an oath of office because of the way he interpreted this passage from scripture, so he made an affirmation instead.  He copped a great deal of flak from some religious people who thought he was denying his faith by making an affirmation instead of swearing an oath.

Anyway, for each of these statements, Jesus took an example of conventional wisdom and dramatically raised the ethical stakes.

A few of these may need some unpacking.

With the bit about plucking out a lustful eye or cutting off a larcenous hand, please remember that Jesus was speaking in the Middle East.  People in that part of the world use that sort of extravagant, excessive, colourful, and sometimes gross imagery when they speak today.  They spoke in a similarly excessive way 2000 years ago.  

Also, when Jesus spoke in this context about divorce, he was speaking about the sort of divorce laws they had in that time and place, when divorce happened because of the unilateral decision of the man involved, and where the woman involved had no say in the matter.  Our situation in 2014 is very different.  No condemnation of any divorced person today should be read into Jesus’ words here.

The bit about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” also needs to be considered.  Sometimes, when people are having a rant about “law-and-order”, sometimes they’ll say something like “Didn’t Jesus say ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’?”  The proper answer is that Jesus quoted that old saying ... and disagreed with it strongly.  The truth is that, if you believe in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Jesus disagrees with you.
  • I’ll say that again.  If you believe in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Jesus disagrees with you.
  • Once more.  It’s important.   If you believe in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Jesus disagrees with you.

All of this is about raising the ethical stakes beyond the lowest-common-denominator ethics of conventional wisdom.  It’s about ethics that goes the second mile, to use another image in our gospel reading.

It’s all about an ethic of maturity.  And the Greek word (teleios) that is used for “perfect” in the last verse of this passage is also translated as “mature”.  In a real way, what Jesus is saying is “Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  And the fact that there was a potential Greek pun involved may have just helped with communication .

But, of course, this is not about doing a lot of things to earn favour with God.  We don’t earn favour with God by doing good deeds, just as we don’t earn God’s love by believing all the right beliefs.  God’s love for us is totally generous, whatever our response.  That’s what grace is all about.  And we worship God who expresses Godself through radical grace.

Jesus calls us live according to the ethics of maturity, the ethics of the second mile, not so that we can earn God’s favour, but so that we can make life better for others and so that, in the process, we can experience the joy of living according to God’s grace.

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