Epiphany 7 23rd February 2014 Year A
This week’s excerpt from Matthew completes the series of antitheses from the Sermon on the Mount with which we began last week. ‘You have heard it said….but now I say to you.’ In such manner we have already seen Jesus tells us of how while in the past there was to be no murder, now there is to be no hatred; while there was to be no adultery now there is to be no lust; how in the past divorce was permitted with a certificate, now marriage is indissoluble (a protection for a woman’s dignity in that society) and last how in the previously there was a prohibition on swearing false oaths while now there is to be no swearing of oaths at all. Now we turn to the final two of the antitheses, the giving of an eye for an eye being replaced by a turning of the other cheek and the going of the second mile and last the past call to love one’s neighbour and hate one’s enemy being replaced with the call to love one’s enemy. Jesus is both deepening and intensifying the Law or Torah but at points is also prepared to break it. This is no mean feat in a context where the Law or Torah was becoming ever more strongly the identity of the Jewish people. Cast by Matthew as a new Moses upon a mountain with a new Law Jesus is seen as one by Matthew who is even greater than Moses. This was indeed a high call given Matthew’s readers who, though being followers of Jesus, were still so firmly established within the Jewish tradition.
In this one is reminded of the example of Mahatma Gandhi who acknowledged his indebtedness to this sermon. Gandhi often subverted the power of the colonial oppressor by making clear the depth of the unjust nature of that oppression. The famous salt march comes to mind. The British had precluded the collection of salt, an abundant natural resource as they wished to tax it. Gandhi indicated to one and all just what he was to do marching to the sea and collecting it. When later he and his supporters walked to the Salt Works in order to claim those works to be met by brutal means which lay bear the wrong of British rule, the game was up for the oppressor. Negotiations would have to take place between the viceroy and Gandhi who course then to make the point clear took some of the salt he had collected with him to that meeting.
There is no commandment to hate one’s enemy in the Hebrew Scriptures though there are plenty of examples of tribal violence and even ethnic cleansing directed to the enemies of ancient Israel. It is easy of course to love one’s neighbour while at the same time exacting vengeance on one’s enemy. Jesus tells us anyone can do that and then calls us to a higher and more perfect way. To be truly authentic the person of faith must do far better than caring only for a neighbour or friend. To be ‘perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect’ requires a calling to this higher and more holy path as exemplified by loving one’s enemies. Once again what a subversive action this represents. It breaks down all the coercive power structures of the world. What would it mean if, as those who follow Jesus, we listened not to the many voices in our world spewing words of hatred against our so called enemies but instead listened to Jesus’ words? What difference would mean to the church if we really practiced these injunctions?
We have lost Jesus’ call to a radical and new Law which reaches into our very hearts searching out our motivations and calling us to a holiness of living. That emphasis we find here and right through Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is seen as one who deepens and intensifies the Law and the call to ethics, an exceeding of the ‘righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees’ lost out to a view where the Law was understood as a negative to be replaced by faith and grace. Gradually the figure of Jesus became isolated from his Jewish roots and was seen soon as one who stood against that tradition. So radical was the separation of Jesus from those Jewish roots that a Christian scholar, Marcion, as early as the second century could call for the exclusion of the Jewish Scriptures from the Christian Scriptures, while also calling for the excision of a large part of the gospels, in particular that of Matthew. You can see how we lost so easily the radical call of Jesus to ethical living by this new Law which springs from the old. Christians still like to contrast themselves as people of grace and distinct and superior to the people of Law and when they do so they risk emptying their faith of radical the ethical demands such as Jesus gives here.
Our reading from Leviticus gives us some examples of the ethical demands that an understanding of God makes upon us. The Jewish people were largely unique in the ancient world in that they understood that religion was not confined to the cultus, to the religious ritual, the appeasement of God by such means, but that faith also had an ethical dimension, thus the development of the Law or Torah, 613 laws which were to govern their life together as a community of God’s people, before God.
There are many of those Laws which we may rightly find distasteful, such as the punishment of death by stoning for disrespect shown to one’s parents (I wonder how many of us would still be living!) or that to have intercourse with another man’s slave was punishable by less than to do so with a free woman; or just plain strange such as a couple found here to do with cross-breeding of animals or plants or that there could be no mixing of cloth in one garment. Thus the reading today has been carefully chosen by those who set our lectionary or cycle of readings to exclude such. We find however, a clear call for a just living with each other before God. In that calling there is a special concern for the poor. In a society almost entirely agricultural precepts are given which ensure their well-being.
At a time when there is so much individualistic searching for spiritualities, both Christian and otherwise, those which serve oneself and lack a concern for one’s neighbour we are reminded by Jesus so deeply rooted in the Torah tradition that faith and spirituality must have an ethical dimension. There is a call to a just and holy living. That living subverts the values of our world. It lays bare its manifold oppressions and wrongs showing them for what they really are. In such living we live in true faith, in true alignment with that way of Jesus to which he calls us. Let us hear that call to a subversive living but not to hear but go so to live!