Sunday, February 9, 2014

Being Truly Human: The Pain of Daily Conversion. A Homily from Matthew 5:17-37 for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time for 2.16.14

February 16, 2014
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
(revised from a homily first
posted on 2.8.11) 

The Lectionary Gospel Reading for this, the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, continues in earnest Jesus' teaching called, The Sermon On The Mount

In this portion we are thrown upon Jesus' own understanding of the law fulfilled, or the law as practiced. It is in this section that we hear Jesus transitioning the law from the letter into the heart with his sayings, "you say the law is this, but I say the law is really that."

In fact, let us begin this homily by noticing the stark contrast of these “you say, but I say” sayings, and how they are dense and heavy both for the hearts of GOD'S chosen people (Jesus’ original hearers) and for GOD’s Gospel people (us) as well:

YOU SAY:                         JESUS SAYS:
No Murder                        Not even anger
No Adultery                      Not even an adulterous thought
Divorce for Indecency       No divorce
No false oaths                    No oaths at all
An eye for an eye               No retaliation
Love your neighbor           Love your enemies 

Is it any wonder that for centuries Christians have despaired of the possibility of living in this manner, and have therefore sought to explain away the necessity to bear these statements as practice? Is it any wonder that Christian believers have sought to place these commands at the feet of Jesus' original hearers or at the feet of those in a future, realized kingdom, but not we who live in the present? 

Said another way, to explain away these commands of Jesus -- and I believe the word command is the correct word -- is to undercut the basic impact of what Jesus’ mission really meant. As N.T. Wright reminds us, Jesus did not come to take us to heaven, but to reclaim for GOD this broken world on the brink of destruction. To be sure, we will find that the promise of eternal life is an outgrowth of GOD’s love for us, but we must remember that, in the end, his mission is not about us, it is about GOD. 

The heart of this question, then, goes to our hermeneutical understanding. 
How is the Sermon to be interpreted? 
Simply put, the sermon interprets to humans the reality of true humanness.

To see what was a stake for Israel and for us in this regard, let us pay close attention to an example passage from Ezekiel 36:
22 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleannesses, and I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you.  (EZ 36:22-29)
If we only had more time to unpack this text. Suffice it for now the we only notice the promises contained within these words of the prophet:

I am about to act
I will take you; I will gather you
I will cleanse you
I will give you a new heart
I will put my spirit within you
I will save you from all your uncleanness

So here’s the question. When is all this to occur? The Hebrews believed that this would occur at the GOD's visitation, at the time of resurrection and vindication. But, Jesus presents himself as the fulfillment of GOD’s action, now. Jesus presents himself as now gathering the remnant and cleansing them, giving them a new heart and a new spirit so that they could be, as we heard last week — the light of the world and the salt of the earth…

The sermon, then, is a statement of and a calling to GOD's reclamation project. This sermon concerns his gift of true humanness to us. This sermon is a statement of what was GOD’s intention for human living all along. This Sermon and the law of GOD which it seeks to unearth, is good; it is beautiful. The law is a gift from a wise and loving heavenly Father who offers it to us as a guide for how a community holds itself together and refrains from turning to the brutality of the survival of the fittest.

But, what might be more helpful is to ask how the sermon has regularly been interpreted? That is, have we understood the sermon and the law it presents in this way? 


We could unpack this issue in a rather obtuse way: 
Does Jesus interpret Paul, or does Paul interpret Jesus? 
If we say that Jesus, is the highest point of GOD’s self-revelation, and that it is his life that interprets the whole, we would take this to mean that Jesus interprets Paul. Said differently, we must take Jesus' words and works with the utmost seriousness, and allow them to tell us what St. Paul meant.

Or, take another example, from the law itself, especially the moral law from Sinai. If Jesus is the highest point of revelation and interprets the whole, we could argue that the law is actually something to be live out, something -- as the new humanity -- to be put into practice. Take note of Jesus' words from earlier in the Sermon: 
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17)
I understand this to mean that we can no longer afford to hide behind a false dichotomy between “law and grace.” We must not run from the law or explain it away. To know that Jesus fulfills the law, every moment of it means, therefore, we follow the living, risen Christ toward the law of GOD as well, which is the heart and the calling of the Sermon. 

I mean, for heaven's sake, notice how the Sermon ends: 
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!"  (Matthew 7:24-27)
So, we are here confronted with the deep question of just how the law is meant to be lived for non-Hebrews in the present here and now, separated as we are far from the original languages and cultures?  That is, what are we to actually do?

Here, I want to rely upon the thoughts of the Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann who is an excellent bridge for our understanding. 

Brueggemann writes this: 
"The new commands at Sinai voiced YHWH's dream of a neighborhood, YHWH's intention for the common good. There was not common good in Egypt, because people in a scarcity system cannot entertain the common good." 
He goes on to write: 
"This narrative from anxiety through abundance to neighborhood invites us to rethink the intention of the Ten Commandments. They are not rules for deep moralism. They are not commonsense rules designed to clobber and scold people. Rather, they are the most elemental statement of how to organize social power and social goods for the common benefit of the community. They are indeed ‘a new commandment’ that is quite in contrast to the old commands of Pharaoh.” (from Journey To The Common Good go here and here)
Again, I take this to mean that to follow the Christ we must actually live the new-law-reality into our current communities of faith. Let this sink in for a moment. I am now saying that we must grapple with this new-law-reality presented by Jesus, and I am arguing that the Sermon on the Mount is therefore to be our practice. As I have often said, the Jesus-way, supremely, is something to be done. OK, great. We get that, but, what are we to specifically do? 

We must become, moment by moment and day by day, more and more truly human by living out the words of the sermon.

This means, at least according to our present text, no murder, not even anger. No adultery, not even an adulterous thought. No capricious divorce. No oaths at all. Not an eye for an eye, so no retaliation. It means we love our neighbor and we love our enemies. 

In sum, we love GOD first and we love our neighbor first. This is the mission of the church and these practices embody Jesus’ mission of redemption and reconciliation of the world. This is what it means to be a new humanity and a renewed community, and, therefore, to obey the commands found in this Sermon means we acutely understand that we have a part, even a key part, in GOD's reclamation project because it matters supremely how we live and what we do.

About now we should be feeling the weight of these commands. How can the church, so captured by the culture of scarcity (Brueggemann) and by the attitude of self-preservation (Bonhoeffer), find its path to this narrow way, and be willing to give herself away by living these sacrificial commands? I mean, this stuff goes against all we are.

Or, we could describe the weight of the sermon in this way. We see ourselves as having failed already. We see, clearly see in fact, that we do not measure up. What, then, are we to do? 

Well, to be honest, I do not know. In fact, I am not at all sure we can get where we need to be. But I am sure we cannot do so on our own.

I think the answer may lie somewhere by acting from two directions simultaneously. 

First, we must pray for daily conversion. We must practice the reality of this thorough, daily dedication. 
“GOD, I give myself to you this day. Give me the heart of flesh; give me the spirit of cleanness. Give me a truly human life."

Second, we must mount this search for the reality of humanness together. That is, the community must launch out into the deep practices of the Sermon on the Mount as community, with both accountability and grace-filled love. This ultimately means leading our faith-neighborhood to understand that no matter how the culture lives, we are different, we are part of a unique community (Titus 2:11-12). It also means lifting each other up in grace when we miserably fail to fulfill these commands of Jesus, who is the Christ (Galatians 6:2), finding in each other the presence of the risen Christ.