Friday, February 14, 2014

Epiphany 6A

Have you ever heard of Murphy's Law?  This is an important part of your education as an Aussie, of course.  Murphy – presumably some pessimistic stockman – gave us the following rule for life.  'In any field of human endeavour', said Murphy, 'if something can go wrong, then it will'.  Then there's part two of Murphy's Law: 'and if everything seems to be going right, then you must have overlooked something'.  I find Murphy's Law applies very strongly whenever I try to do odd jobs around the house. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus also seems to think Murphy's Law applies to the keeping of the Torah, the Law of Moses. 

Actually, he wasn't alone in that.  The Pharisees advocated a similar approach.  You see, they knew that the Law gave life.  This after all was what Moses said, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses humongous farewell speech when he repeats, over and over again, 'the choice is yours, life or death, God's law or your own way – choose life!'  The Law gives life because it keeps us within the circle of covenant loyalty, it keeps us on the same page, so to speak, with God.  But the Pharisees knew, and Jesus knows, that we human beings tend to wander off.  Give us a simple instruction and within a couple of generations people will be writing new interpretations and commentaries on it, we reassure ourselves that it isn't black and white but shades of grey and wriggle off the hook.  Murphy's Law.  So the approach of the Pharisees was what they called 'building fences around the Torah'.  What that meant was to codify it, fence it in with examples and more specific instructions – and like Jesus, they also built the walls a bit higher by making them more radical – on the basis, I guess, that if you fail at keeping the stricter interpretation of the Law then you just might still find yourself scaping in to the original circle of covenant keeping.

Last week, I commented that Jesus doesn't water anything down, neither, especially in Matthew's Gospel, does Jesus say or do anything that challenges the Law of Moses.  'Don't think I've come to set aside the Law', he cautions us – 'no, not to set it aside but to fulfil it'.  And in today's passage he starts putting some flesh on the bones of that.  These sayings in Matthew's Gospel are sometimes called 'antitheses' – not because Jesus is contradicting the Law of Moses but simply because of the structure of his statements: 'You have heard it said – but I say to you …'.  Jesus is racheting it up here, building fences around the Torah.

Well there are maybe two usual ways of interpreting this.  Neither of them, I hasten to add, are entirely wrong, in my opinion.  Some commentators say that Jesus is being radical here because he is saying, in effect, 'the Law really, really, matters – and you should take it more seriously'.  And so he gives us, if you like, a new version of the Law – the Law of Moses on steroids.  'Well, you've heard it said, do not murder? But I tell you – don't even get angry!'  Biggest trouble with this way of interpreting Jesus' teaching here is that it makes the Christian life seem almost entirely a matter of morality.  The rules of Christian living do matter, but there's more going on here than rule-keeping.

The second way of looking at it is to notice that if keeping the Law in its original format seemed difficult, Jesus' new revised version is clearly impossible!  Some Bible commentators even believe that Jesus is deliberately pushing the Law to its extreme to make the point that we are powerless to actually live up to it.  In some Christian theologies this is the main point – driven to despair, as St Paul seems to be sometimes, by our inability to keep the Law under our own steam, then all we can do is rely on the faithfulness of Christ and the grace of God.  This is a really good point, and one worth keeping front and centre of our consciousness.  A healthy awareness of our own inability to live in ways that reflect God's priorities reminds us of our dependence on God's grace and mercy.  Murphy's Law is alive and well in the business of Christian life and spirituality, and we need in about equal measure a sense of humour and a sense of proportionality that tells us that it is God's initiative, God's mercy and compassion that we see in Jesus, and the leading of the Holy Spirit that does the trick, not our feeble efforts at DIY.

But where I think Jesus is being really radical – and about here, I maybe need to explain the meaning of the word, 'radical'.  Maybe it conjures up images for you of a fiery hellfire and brimstone preacher, or an angry jihadist – but it simply comes from the Latin word for 'root' – radix – getting to the root of something.  And yes, it's related to the English word, 'radish'.  Jesus is radical because he is getting to the root of the Torah – what it is actually about.  You see, the Torah isn't about keeping rules, it is about relationships.  Your relationships matter to God.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example.  The first half are about are relationship with God, and the second half are about our relationships with one another.  Take Jesus' pithy summary of the two greatest commandments that we recite every Sunday – the first one is about our relationship with God, and the second is about our relationships with one another – and the point is that they are interconnected.  You can't be right with God unless you rectify your relationships with one another – and you can't be right with one another unless you rectify your relationship with God.

Understood like this, actually the whole of the Law is a way of reminding us how to honour those with whom we are in relationship. But somehow we forget that, and so get caught up in keeping the rules for the sake of keeping the rules. Not rocking the boat, not getting into trouble or losing the respect of our peers.  Which is why Jesus ups the ante – not to force us to take the Law more seriously, and certainly not to rub our noses in the fact that we can't really live by the rules.  Instead what I think Jesus is trying to do is gently nudge us into imagining what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honour each other as women and men and children who are truly blessed and beloved of God. It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder; you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that, too, demeans and diminishes God's children.  If murder is the most extreme example then anger can be the first step on a path that denies the possibility of loving relationship.

We need to pause here and take note of the fact that living without anger is both impossible and also that isn't necessarily desirable.  Anger is a primal emotion, it comes from the oldest part of our brains – we are hard-wired for it and it serves a useful adaptive purpose.  At its most basic, anger helps us avoid potentially harmful situations.  But if we hold on to anger, if we nurture and magnify our anger or feed off its energy – then our anger can destroy both us and other people.  That sort of anger closes us off from life-giving relationship and the healing practice of forgiveness.  Anger is primal: what you do with it is determined by whether you are grounded in God's love or the shallow soil of your own self.

So we can't just tick the box – no murder today.  No adultery today.  Jesus points us toward the underlying point that it matters how we treat people, and it matters whether we are choosing life in our relationships.  Are we living towards seeing the reality in one another that each person is a child of God and reflects the beauty and truth of God?  Have I treated this person as the very image of God, or have I diminished that image by projecting my own anger or frustration, have I diminished that image by projecting my own physical desires onto another person in a way that renders them an object in my eyes?  We are hard-wired for anger just as we are hard-wired for hunger or sexual desire – I think we can agree that Jesus' command to amputate troublesome body parts is hyperbole or playful exaggeration but the point is that in our more fundamental identity as creatures made in God's image we have an even deeper need to live towards wholeness not only for ourselves but for others.  Choose life.

A word about divorce.  I read this passage as a Christian who has experienced the breakdown of a marriage relationship, and we live in a society in which at least one third of marriages end in separation and divorce.  Jesus' unequivocal and hard-edged words about divorce can cause a palpitation of self-recrimination, even for ancient failures.  Marriage in particular and human relationships in general are sacred because they mirror God's own characteristic of self-giving love.  As Christians we believe that the covenant of marriage is an echo of God's covenant love for us, and so it is not disposable, not throw-away.  But we also know the reality that sometimes the life-giving option is that a marriage be allowed to end gracefully, so that there can be forgiveness and healing and new growth.  Jesus' words wound us, because we know our own imperfection and that our choices all too often hurt others.  But Jesus' words also gather us in, despite our failures and our imperfections.  For example, did you notice last week that when Jesus said those who break the law will be least in the kingdom and those who keep the law will be great … so whether you keep it or break it you're still in the kingdom?  Maybe the Law isn't the way we earn God's favour or earn a place in God's kingdom. Maybe the Law is - as the great protestant Reformer Martin Luther put it – simply the precious gift of an adoring parent given to beloved children, urging us to treat each other well, and encouraging us to start over – and over and over – whenever we fail.

Choose life.