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Friday, February 11, 2011

6th Sunday after the Epiphany - Ordinary Time

"The Law is instructive in showing us just how imperfect we are, how much we are in need of God’s abiding grace, and how we ought to live into the law of love. Is this what Jesus is doing when Jesus makes the stakes even higher than the Hebrew Law?
"Cut it Out," Carol Howard Merritt, The Hardest Question, 2011.

Matthew 5:21-37
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33“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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

A Little Bit for Everyone
Oremus Online NRSV Text

Textweek General Resources

Textweek Resources For Sunday's Gospel from Matthew

Some interesting articles on this passage:
William Loader's "First Thoughts"

Working Preacher thoughts on each lesson appointed for today

One to download then struggle and wrestle with:

"Jesus' Sermon on the Mount instructs us to not return violence for violence; instead we should be like God, who offers boundless, gratuitous love to all. But in the same Gospel Jesus tells eight parables in which God deals violently with evildoers. Which of the divine ways are we to imitate?"
"Matthew's Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables," Barbara E. Reid, O.P., (other resources at) "Parables," Christian Reflection, The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2006.
As we come to offer our gift at your altar, make us eager in seeking reconciliation, so that e may live the gospel of your kingdom with single-hearted devotion, our every thought filled with respect for one another an our every deed with reverence.
From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year A, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some thoughts...

This part of the Gospel has a number of sections.  Our reading today has four of these "antithetical" style teachings. "You have heard that it was said, but I say to you," are the introduction for each one.  In each Jesus recalls a teaching and then presses his followers to go deeper. 

We might remember that in the previous introduction to Jesus' teaching on the mountain he reminds us that he is the one to fulfill the law and not to abolish the law.  I quick read of Daniel J. Harrington's thoughts on the idea of law can help us better place this teaching in context. (Matthew, Sacra Pagina, 91)

The English term "Law" can distort the Jewish understanding of Torah.  The word "Torah" derives from the Hebrew verb "instruct" (yrh) and refers to the teaching or instruction presented in the Scriptures, especially the Pentateuch.  For Jews the Torah was (and is) the revelation of God's will, a kind of divine blueprint for action.  It is a gift and privilege given to Israel, not a burden.  Acting upon the Torah is the privileged way of responding to the Creator God who has entered into covenant relationship with Israel.  It presupposes the prior manifestation of God's love.  The Greek translation of Torah (nomos) is not incorrect since the Torah is concrete and demands action.  But the theological context of covenant can never be forgotten if distortion is to be avoided.
If we begin then with this understanding we can read these antithesis in a very different way.  If we think of the prerequisite of God's love and covenant, then the baptismal affirmation of that covenant, we arrive at these understanding that these then are a manner of Christian life.  When we work on these higher ways of being we engage in the fulfilment of the covenant relationship we have with God. When we do not we turn our backs on the covenant relationship God wishes to have with us.

In the first antithesis Jesus teaches us that when we live and dwell in anger, when we use anger, and lash out or treat others out of our anger we are destroying the creatures of God.  Anger leads to death.  The higher way of following Jesus is to acknowledge this death and to seek reconciliation. Both illustrations make clear that not only is anger a destructive force in the life of Christian community but that it is an unacceptable manner of leadership.  One cannot offer gifts and talents at God's altar unless one is reconciled with ones enemies. 

Somehow in our culture we have decided it is okay to be angry and to treat others (service providers and enemies) with scorn, discontent, and hostility.  Jesus teaches us we destroy the creatures of God and one another when we do this.  Yes, we live in a country where we honor a person's right to free speech. That does not mean that such manners of speech build up our country or the communities in which we live. However, Jesus teaches us another way.  Jesus teaches us (and many of his followers need to hear this clearly) that such behavior is unacceptable, destructive, and we are held accountable to a higher standard. 

Our bodies and person reflect the glory of God and in his second teaching Jesus explains that lust destroys the higher purpose of our flesh.  Christianity and the Episcopal Church is uniquely a very incarnational faith.  We understand that the beauty of God is reflected in all creation and in one another.  When we look on one another with the eyes of Jesus Christ we cannot help but see God's glory revealed.  Jesus calls us to this higher understanding and tells us that lust leads to adultery.  These are two charged words.  But if we remember the understanding of the Torah above we have a better and much more clear understanding of the teaching here.  Certainly what he says is true. However, there is a higher code being offered here.  Lust is a form of viewing individuals as objects of desire.  It turns the flesh from being a revelation of God and God's creative and covnenantal acts to something that can be possessed by another human being.  In this teaching we see the role of dominance and power abusing the creatures of God.  Bodies and people are works of Godly art when we treat them otherwise we change them.  When  we use sex to sell something or when we abuse people sexually we are defaming God's handiwork -- that which he called very good. 

In our culture we use lust, sex, and images of humans as commodities to be bought and sold for the purpose of individual enrichment or for power gain.  Not unlike free speech, our country provides an environment where this is seen as normative. However, for the Christian we must as individuals live a higher standard.  Lust destroys that upon which it fixes its gaze.  It will also eventually destroy the person who lives a life fed by it.

I would add that divorce enters into the picture here because it is the death of the covenant relationship illustrated in the man and woman's brokenness.  While Jesus speaks of lust leading to adultery, we live in world where divorce happens for many different reasons.  Jesus I believe though is clear about what happens in divorce and how it is rooted in brokenness.  When humans have so destroyed the image of the union of God with humanity that in their relationship they can no longer see the love God has for them the relationship is itself broken.  When they cannot see the beauty they reflect or the goodness out of which God created them -- the relationship is over. The Episcopal Church has responded by allowing for divorce and for remarriage. It has done this as a pastoral and caring approach to members of the community who find themselves in this very sad place.  The church has more that it can do to help people shoulder the pain of divorce; regardless of its cause.  An individual who lives with the false belief that they are no longer good, somehow failed, or that God does not love them can be an incredible mill stone around an individual spiritual life.

The last of the antithetical styled teachings in this Sunday's lesson is about oaths.  Here Jesus offers the very simply reminder that yes and no are perfectly good answers.  The Torah permits oaths in every day speech as long as they are neither irreverent or false (Allison/Davies, Matthew, vol 1, p. 532).  Again, one must be careful in speech to not do damage to that which is God's.  I am struck here by thoughts provided by the Anglican theologian John Milbank offers in a number of his texts that our words have meaning and they have being. They have substance.  We believe in a God who created with the and through the Word.  We believe in the Word which becomes flesh, the living Word of God.  Not unlike how feelings change the world in Jesus' teaching about anger.  Not unlike how we look and treat people changes the world.  How we speak, for Christians, makes meaning and being in the world.  Our words are powerful and we are accountable for them.

These are three very difficult teachings. These teachings are tough no matter who you are, but especially if you claim to follow Jesus.  All too often the Christian point the world and calls for transformation.  More often than not it is the Christian, me included, who needs to do the transformative work of listening to Jesus' words.

The Lambeth Bible Study Method

This Bible study method was introduced by the African Delegation to the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican

Question #5: "Briefly identify where this passage touches their life today," can change based upon the lesson. Find lesson oriented questions at this website:

Opening Prayer: O Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. One person reads passage. This person then invites a member of the group to begin the process.

2. Each person briefly identifies the word or phrase that catches their attention then invites another person to share.

3. Each shares the word or phrase until all have shared or passed using the same invitation method.

4. The passage is read a second time, preferably from a different translation. The reader then invites a person in the group to begin the process.

5. Each person briefly identifies where this passage touches their life today, and then invites someone who has not shared yet.

6. The passage is read a third time, also from another translation, and the reader invites a person to start the process.

7. Each person responds to the questions, "What does God want me to do, to be or to change?"

8. The group stands up in a circle and holds hands. One person initiates the prayer “I thank God today for …” and “I ask God today for…” The prayer goes around the circle by squeezing the hand to your right.

9. When the circle is fulfilled, the person who initiated the prayer starts the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father…”

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