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Beyond the Rules

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Sermon Deut.30.15-end, Matt 5.21-37

If, like my mother, you were divorced and then remarried you may have been shifting in your seat at Jesus words about committing adultery with your new partner. If you found yourself aroused by a sexy photo of a favourite actor or actress you may be feeling alarmed at Jesus violent words about pulling out your offending eye. If you lost your temper with a family member this week you might be alarmed at the threat of hell fire, and so on.

In our church calendar we are starting to gear up towards Lent and the readings set for today reflect that. In Mathew’s gospel we are part way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew pictures Jesus sitting on a mountain, like Moses, and teaching his followers. In our OT reading Moses is instructing the Israelites. His aim is to get them to ‘choose life’, to live according to those commandments given to them in the desert – the 10 commandments; God’s rules for life giving relatedness to himself, to others and to the earth. Jesus is pictured as another Moses. He wants his followers to choose life. They are to lead the way for others, just as God had intended Israel to do. Just before this he’s been telling them that they are like salt and light for others. They have a high calling. Now he gets down to the nitty gritty.

For myself as I sat with this passage of scripture I was disturbed on two counts. First because the talk of cutting off your hand or pulling out your eye sounds like the worst aspects of Sharia law. Secondly, this week especially, because this kind of language can encourage the kind of abuse that was reported in the media of a Christian leader who saw it as his task to beat the wickedness out of young boys. I want us as followers of Christ to grapple with what looks like harsh teaching. So today, I won’t be doing the equivalent of tucking you up in bed with your teddies (if I ever do that!).

You are probably all aware that there is good religion and bad religion. The line between the two is often very fine. It’s easy to distort aspects of any faith, twisting them ever so slightly so that they then skew the whole. And we all do this to some extent because we home in on those aspects of our faith that best please us or fit in with our politics or temperament. We can’t be totally objective when we come to scripture; we see it through the eyes of the person we are. Having said that, we are encouraged to develop alertness, to have eyes that see and ears that hear, to use bible language.

Jesus teaching here is partly about developing this alertness. The violent language is a way of getting across the importance of what he is saying. Exaggeration of this kind was characteristic of the teaching style of rabbis in Jesus time. When elsewhere Jesus speaks of hanging a millstone round the neck of someone who leads astray children or the vulnerable we don’t take it literally, we understand that he’s making a point. Here, too, he’s not advocating literal amputation of offending limbs but underlining the importance of what he’s saying. This is not Sharia law.

So what is he saying? It’s here that distortions come in. The probably small distortions you and I make and the much bigger ones that abusers make. Part of the problem is that we think small. We just want to get by. But sitting on the mountain side with Jesus is to be drawn into a bigger picture. It’s rather as though he’s saying that being human is a heavenly calling, far grander than anything we had imagined, and now is the time to enter into that calling fully. The disciples had their rules for life – the 10 commandments –and doubtless many of them, like the rich young man, could say that they had kept them from their youth, so what more is there? Jesus is saying that they have to inhabit the rules fully. Only that way can they see the glory of God’s intentions for humanity. His example of divorce illustrates that. Divorce was easy in those times. It was something only a man could do, and for the most trivial of reasons. A wife was one of a man’s possessions. The implication of what Jesus says here is that marriage confers a higher status on the woman and requires a correspondingly higher standard of behaviour from the man.

The act of murder doesn’t come from nowhere, it starts with murderous intentions inside us, anger very often. This is where alertness comes in. Follow the trail; stop it at source and be ruthless about stopping it. If being unfaithful to our partner starts with lustful thoughts about another, then be ruthless about stopping these thoughts at source. Let’s notice that this is something we do ourselves – it’s not something that Jesus is asking others to do to us. Unfortunately a distortion the church can make and has made is to act as a moral policeman for others. Remember Jesus saying that we deal with the plank lodged in our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.

That still, however, leaves another distortion. Jesus is asking us to be ruthless with harmful thought patterns. Where does being kind to ourselves fit in with that? From the very early days of Christianity there were those who inflicted physical discomfort or pain on themselves as a way of letting their bodies know that they were subject to a higher authority than their physical needs. St Aidan, one of the Celtic saints, was said to have stood waist high in the waters of the north sea in winter for hours as part of his monastic discipline. Aidan is one of my heroes in the faith, but I wouldn’t be copying this particular habit. St Benedict, the founder of the dominant model for monastic life in the west, counselled against excesses of this kind, emphasising instead the importance of balance in the practice of our faith.

Jesus himself did not inflict pain on others or on himself. It’s clear, though, that he faced internal battles (temptations in the desert, Gethsemane) and that his followers would too. It’s also the case that he was tortured to death on a cross and that in our baptism we are invited to die with Christ before rising to new life with him. We may expect suffering as we follow Christ but he doesn’t invite us to go looking for it.

So, there are several distortions that can emerge from our interpretation of scripture, all leading to bad religion; one is that we take an unhealthy interest in the shortcomings of others and set out to correct them. Another is that we may unduly punish ourselves for our own shortcomings. Or we seek the most difficult and painful path for ourselves, seeing that as the way of sharing Christ’s suffering on the cross. Some signs of bad religion are excesses, secrecy and blocking our relatedness to others.

Like all distortions they keep us from recognising who we are in God’s eyes – beloved, heavenly(!) human beings. They keep us living in a shed when our true home is in the light and space and warmth we see as we sit next to Christ on the mountain side.

Of course there will always be times when we have angry feelings, or lustful feelings or the desire to harm others, or any number of other destructive thoughts. What Jesus is encouraging us to do is to be alert to this. So we say, ‘Ah yes, I can recognise you and I’m not following you.’ Rather like one of those computer games where you have to thwart the enemy intruder at every point. This may involve some concrete action, like sorting out a disagreement we have with someone before matters can get out of hand (v23-24). Or not visiting certain sites on our computer.

At this point we may throw up our hands and say, ‘I can’t be on 24 hour alert to all those impulses driving my behaviour. Jesus sets the bar too high.’ You’re right. The call is an upward call and we soon realise we can’t manage it alone. Even Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ won’t get us there. Good religion is when we look at that landscape in front of us with Jesus next to us and see more and more that it is grace and mercy. It cannot be earned, manipulated or consumed like a product. It can only be received as a gift.

 

Christine Bainbridge, Feb 2017