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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Oh, is THAT all?!

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

So, turn the other cheek when someone belts you, give to everyone who asks of you, love your enemy and be perfect.

Oh, is THAT all?!

The Gospel for today (Matthew 5:38-48) sets the bar pretty darn high.  Impossibly high, by definition, actually.  For even if we could restrain our sense of justice enough to actually turn the other cheek when someone slaps us, we would still run up against that "be perfect" thing.  And who could possibly win?

This Gospel does require some explanation.  The first is Jesus' use of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth".  This law actually predates the first written book of the Bible by some several hundred years by our best estimates.  But despite its age and general ubiquity across a variety of human cultures, it remains probably the most misused and abused statement.  Ever.

This law was called lex talionis in Latin.  Lex meaning 'law', talionis having the same root as 'retaliation'.  So it is the law of retaliation.  But whereas many people want to appropriate this law to justify revenge upon someone who has injured them or to demonstrate how God and religion call for unmerciful acts, this is actually a gross misrepresentation of the passage.

This passage was actually meant to be a constraint to legal punishment decided upon by courts, elders and judges.  It was to ensure that the law didn't overstep its bounds.  It was meant to ensure that the punishment fit the crime.  It was meant that someone could not be beheaded for stealing an apple, or that someone who stole $10 could not be fined $1000.

It was meant to refer to legal administrators, and NOT to private individuals.

Another point is that it was not meant to be taken literally.  No judge would award me the right to actually poke out another man's eye, even if he had poked mine out.  But there was actually a monetary value assigned to parts of the body, and if I caused damage to a person's body, I was responsible for paying him the amount deemed appropriate by law, and no more.  If you think that sounds archaic, check your insurance policy.  We still do it: if you lose a finger on the job, insurance pays out X; if you lose a foot on the job, insurance pays out Y, and so on.

At any rate, Jesus calls us to not even be that litigious.  He says that if someone slaps us, we ought not even take them to court.  We should offer them to slap the other cheek.

So to be Christian, we must be somewhere between good-natured and a doormat?

Not so.

But Jesus was keenly aware of some aspects of human nature.  One being that if I you slap me and I slap you in return, we will most likely not consider the matter finished.  We will likely escalate to closed fists.

But if I turn the other cheek, I short-circuit the process.  Hatred does not build upon hatred, and perhaps reconciliation can begin.

What it all comes down to is one of the last statements Jesus makes in the Gospel: "Love your enemy".  Notice he does not say "like".  We are not called to invite our enemies over for supper, hook them up with our sister or send them Christmas cards.  But we are called to love them.  We are called to treat our enemies as children of God, with all the respect and compassion that any other child of God deserves.

But a thought occurs: what is love, after all?  Not a particularly novel question, I know, but bear with me.  Given the first half of the Gospel where we are seemingly called to permit all manner of abuse to be heaped upon us by our enemies, and the second half where we are called to love and pray for our enemies, one could draw the conclusion that Jesus is saying that to love our enemies, we must allow them to do whatever they want to us.

Not so.

Here's a comparison: if you love your child, do you let them stick a fork in the toaster?  Do you let them stay up to all hours and eat whatever they want?  If you love you spouse, do you let them abuse you or cheat on you?

No.  To allow them to do those things unchecked would be the ultimate disservice, both to us and the other person.  To not establish our own boundaries and to not assert our own integrity would be to invite these people to be the worst people they could be.  Not the best people they could be, as the Gospel for today is calling us to be.

I propose that Jesus is actually calling us to call others to accountability and personal integrity.  If you slap me and I slap you back, you are off the hook in your own mind, because I have evened the score.  If I don't give in to anger and I fail to even the score, YOU have just been called to accountability.  YOU have decide whether you want to be the person that will reach out in anger twice.

Just because we are never going to reach perfection does not mean that we are allowed to stop trying.  Just because we will never be like God does not mean that we have an excuse to go the other way.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

How rules actually make us free

To hear my podcast sermon for this week, click here.

Today's Gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) is extraordinarily dense, and no less controversial.  Jesus seems to be telling us that if we even get angry at someone or lust after someone, we have committed murder or adultery, respectively.

I propose that if we understand the placement of this passage in the wider Gospel and if we understand the climate in which Jesus spoke these words, they actually cease to be controversial.

Jesus makes these statements immediately after his Salt and Light discourse, dealt with in last week's sermon.  In that passage, he makes a most momentous statement: "I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it".  At one point, Jesus is asked what the most important Commandments is.  He does not name any of the Commandments.  Instead, He issues what has become known as "The Great Commandment": love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus was an outspoken critic of the Pharisees, whom he felt had reduced Jewish Law to a mockery of what it was meant to accomplish, to wit, to show love to God and neighbour.  Jesus actually names the very foundation of the Law, rather than the Law itself.

In his discourse about murder, many theologians feel that he is making a comment about the Jewish sacrificial system, which was meant to make things right with God, but was never meant to be a substitute for making things right with our neighbour.  But this is just what it had become.  Rather than humbling oneself and rectifying things with our neighbour, many people were content to offer a sacrifice and walk away feeling like things had been made right.

Jesus calls us to a greater spiritual purity.  For him, it was not enough that you had not killed your neighbour.  If you even hated your neighbour, you were in transgression of the spirit of the Law, that being love for your neighbour.  Jesus is calling us to relieve ourselves of the anger that we feel by trying to make things right.

Jesus' discourse on adultery and divorce are certainly controversial, but once again, we need to understand the context.  Although we can certainly learn a lesson from this passage, Jesus was not in fact talking to us specifically.  He was speaking to the Jewish people, responding to a threat that he saw to the sacred Jewish concept of marriage.

At the time, Judaism was surrounded by competing philosophical and religious systems, namely Greco-Roman.  Greco-Roman views on marriage were far more liberal that those of Jesus' Judaism.  The Greco-Roman view of marriage was that it was more of a business transaction: you married to have legitimate children and to have someone to run your household, but extramarital affairs were not only permissible, they were in fact condoned and indeed encouraged.

This did not hold with the concept of Jewish monogamy (yes, at one point Judaism was polygamous, but even then, you were expected to be faithful) and the sanctity of marriage.  But these competing views appealed to a number of Jewish men who were more than happy to "trade up" to a newer model when the honeymoon was over.

It is into this situation that Jesus speaks his warning against giving ourselves over to lust and to the ease with which divorces could be performed in his time (it bears noting that women could not divorce their husbands with nearly as much ease, but that is perhaps for another sermon)

Jesus then moves on to vows.  To this day, we often hear people say, "I swear to God", "I swear on my children", "I swear on my mother's grave", and so on and so forth.  We often use this to add weight and credibility to our promises.  But chances are, if you have to add an oath to your promise, you know and I know there is a fair chance you will not come through.  If this was not the case, why could your personal integrity not speak for itself?  If you actually were a trustworthy person, why would an additional vow be needed?

In all these examples, Jesus is actually calling is to a higher level of personal integrity, and (and here is the key thing):

Jesus is calling us to a greater degree of freedom.

He is not trying to ruin our fun.  Imagine for a moment being totally free of anger, grudges with people.  Imagine being happy with what you have: wife, husband, children, job, possessions.  Imagine being free of lusting after more.  Imagine living with so much integrity and honesty that oaths were not necessary.

That would be pretty freeing, indeed.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The virtues of a high-salt diet

To download a podcast of my sermon for today, click here.

I LOVE today's Gospel passage (Matthew 5:13-20).  Partially because I love metaphors, but mostly because I love salt.

Jesus makeS two metaphorical statements in today's Gospel passage.  He calls his followers "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world".

That first statement is an epithet we apply to people to this day.  It is used vaguely to describe someone who is humble, reliable, simple, self-effacing...it is a compliment we bestow on a good, solid human being.

But why?

What does salt have to do with human character?

To understand what this passage means and where it comes from, we need to know a little bit about the history of salt as it has been used by mankind.

Salt has long been held in high regard by humanity, despite modern calls to eat less of it.  Its uses historically were not all related to food, however.  The ancient Egyptians used salt to mummify bodies, salt has long been known to have certain antiseptic effects (to this day, what do we do for a sore throat?), its ability to preserve food has been understood for thousands of years in the form of salting meat and making pickles.  Salt had almost magical properties, and has long been a treasured commodity in the civilized world.

And of course, it makes food taste better.  Many an otherwise insipid meal has been rescued thanks to a few dashes of salt.  It seems that this is the context in which Jesus wants us to consider salt: "If salt has lost its saltiness..."

But here is the funny think about salt.  It is not an end in and of itself.  Think of it in terms of food: salt makes food taste better, but it does not taste particularly good itself.  You don't sit down to a heaping bowl of salt.  You don't say "Boy, that meatloaf really brought out the taste of your salt.".  Salt has one quality: it is salty.  If it were no longer salty, it would have lost its defining characteristic.

Salt, in other words, is not the main event.  It is not the showpiece.  It enhances something else.

Similarly, Jesus employs another metaphor when he talks about light.  "You are the light of the world", he says.  Here is the funny thing about light: its only useful purpose really is to let us see the things around us clearly.  Physicists may debate me, but light seems to have no tangible or at least useful qualities (at least insofar as your average human being is concerned) until it hits something and reflects into our eyes, allowing us to see.  Otherwise, you cannot put light in a jar, in your pocket, buy it or sell it.

So we are salt and we are light.  What does that mean to us?

To understand this a little more clearly, we need to understand that Jesus is leveling a criticism at the Pharisees, as he so often did.  He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, he says.  And he tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees.

The problem with the Pharisees was that they used the Law to judge, to indict, to condemn, to elevate them selves and to put other beneath them.  That is not what the Law was for.  The Law was put in place to ensure harmony with your neighbour and with God, but the Pharisees had perverted the Law until it had become a meaningless exercise devoid of any real spiritual value.

Kind of like food without flavour.  Kind of like food without salt.

In a roundabout way, Christ seems to be calling us to a life of humble spirituality, not one which is proud and curmudgeonly like that of the Pharisees.  Jesus seems to be telling us that faith is not an end in and of itself, but something that enhances our lives.  Our faith, in other words, is only useful if it points us to God and towards compassion, mercy and justice.  Anything else is a pretty insipid meal indeed.

Similarly with light: we are called to be the light of the world, to shine light into the dark corners of the earth, to bring light into the lives of those who live in darkness.

So we are salt and light after all.  We are called to bring flavour, to bring light, to bring joy, compassion, love, justice, mercy...all the things that make life truly worth living after all...into the world.

So today, be a light and add some salt.