Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
The Gospel reading for today is a pretty hard one, isn’t it? And we have already had a hard week, whether or not we watched the news much. The earthquake in Turkey and Syria continues to take a toll of lost lives. Watching and praying, we feel helpless. And we wonder: Is God helpless too?
Ever since Christmas, we have been following Jesus’ life in our readings: he appeared in our flesh, first in the helplessness of a newborn baby (one of so many). We are preparing, as we enter Lent, to see him fully helpless at the end of his relatively short life, a powerless person (one of so many) in the hands of a ruthless and self-serving political regime (yes, one of many). And as much as we might want to blame autocracy for his death, and for the scale of any disaster, the fact is that we mortal flesh-enclad humans on this planet simply don’t have the power to control the instabilities, and uncertainties, that are part of the world that we inhabit.
In the face of this helplessness, I would remind you that just one week ago, the light that shined forth all through Epiphany was celebrated beautifully right in this cathedral with the blessing of candles, and the proclamation that light does indeed shine in the darkness.
And today, we have Jesus fully alive and bringing Good News. Except … is it good news? Now when we lay readers were being taught to preach by Paul Jennings, who knows something about it, he told us told that the job of a preacher isn’t to provide answers so much as to model how Christians read scripture. Today’s scripture is a fine example.
“You have heard that … ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment,” and so on.. And so on and on!
This is raising the bar mighty high, isn’t it?
One way to read scripture is to test it on our experience. Hold it lightly and see what seems to resonate. In my case, my mind first went to a time in my 40s when I was a freelance writer for an unnamed university (familiar to many of us) writing many, many funding proposals, each one with its own particular challenges. I was learning to do this as I went. I would bring my work to the staff person who assigned the work, and he would read the text out loud, pausing after each sentence. Nodding, or suggesting refinements. On one of those occasions, I had really nailed it. We were both pleased.
“Hey, we jumped through that hoop, right?” I said. “Well, you know, “ he said slowly, “Once you can jump through that hoop, they raise it. Then they make it smaller. Then they set it on fire.”
Is that what Jesus is doing here?
Matthew’s gospel was placed first in the New Testament not because it was the oldest one, but because it offered continuity with the Hebrew scriptures. Its writer was particularly interested in showing how Jesus’ teaching continued the ongoing and lively tradition of Jewish understanding. Jesus had no idea, I remind you, that he was starting a new religion! He stood in the lineage of the prophets, all of whom criticized complacency within their religion, criticized their religious leaders and sometimes their political leaders. Pushing the community as a whole towards right action. Exhorting them to do what God loves and desires, not simply to pay lip service to some ancient ideas, or to have good intentions.
So in this passage, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount … it comes between the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus is building on the foundation of the Law, given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
We know, because we have heard it a lot, that Saint Paul says a number of things about the Law that, taken out of context, seem on the face of it to malign the Jewish faith, reducing it to a sort of legalistic bean-counting that in his words “cannot save.” But that is not a proper construction of the Jewish law. We do believe Jesus saves. We’re Christians. Yet in this passage Jesus is extending, not annulling, the commandments.
When you think about it, the Law… the commandments… are about things we CAN control. While we are alive, with both death and life in front of us, we most of us on most days CAN choose life. Hence this beautiful, even pleading, exhortation to love and obey God, because holding fast in this way (this is a movement of the heart, of the whole person), literally “means life to you.” (Deut 30:20).
And Jesus breaks open the meaning of that scripture, showing all the little ways that people go slip sliding away from the life of the promise. Bad talking each other. Lusting. I’ll spare you the whole list. My point is that this teaching is given to us to encourage real fidelity to the little choices that build up a pattern of life that is healthy and sustainable—not only individual choices, either, not only to save us from certain hell-fire, if that’s where you’re at—because what is at stake is the common life, the well being for us all as God’s people, and for the flourishing of human society.
Richard Rohr advises that, when we read scripture, and whenever we pray, we do well to “listen for a deeper voice that isn’t our own. We will know that it isn’t the ego because it will never shame or frighten us, but rather strengthen us, even when it is challenging us. If it is God’s voice, it will take away our illusions and our violence so completely and naturally that we can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy.”
And so, while I was holding my story about the flaming hoops in my mind, and thinking about this problem of the law seeming to have been constructed (or understood) as essentially punitive, a completely different story came to mind, one in a book of oral history collected two generations ago in Texas and New Mexico, called “The Quilters.”
“I’m eighty-three and I’ve done a heap of quilts, girl. But I remember, like it was yesterday, my first quilt. Mama had one of them frames that swung down from over the bed and there was always a quilt in it. … [She} was a beautiful quilter. She done the best work in the county. Everybody knew it. I always longed to work with her and I can tell you how plain I recall the day she said, “Sarah, you come quilt with me now if you want to.” I was too short to sit in a chair and reach it, so I got my needle and thread and stood beside her. I put that needle through and pulled it back up again, then down, and my stitches were about three inches long. Papa came in about that time, he stepped back and said, “Florence, that child is flat ruinin’ your quilt.” Mama said, “She’s doing no kind of a thing. She’s quiltin’ her first quilt.” He said, “Well, your’re jest goin’ to have to rip it all out tonight.” Mama smiled at me and said, “Them stitches is going to be in that quilt when it wears out.” All the time they was talkin’ my stitches was getting’ shorter. That was my first quilt. I have it still to look at sometimes.
No hellfire there. No punishment. Simply growth, and a parent who looks on lovingly.
If Lent is a time to draw closer to Jesus, how will we fashion our own lives during this coming holy season? Will we be able to look back and see the baby steps where we started, and also some refinement, some growth in skill, rooted in our own enthusiasm, undertaken simply because we are choosing more life? Simply for the love of it? I hope so! Let us all be so inspired.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God gives the growth… we are God’s servants, working together, you are God’s field, God’s building.” (I Cor 3: 7,9)
Thanks be to God.
The readings for this Sunday, February 12, 2023, are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Richard Rohr reference found here
The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, An Oral History. Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen. New York: Anchor Press, 1977.