Last revised: February 7, 2017
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FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20
RoCa: Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
Lutherans have often read Matthew 5:21-48 as impossible to follow. The dominant reading of this chapter among Lutherans has been that it is undoable:
“Exceed the righteousness of Pharisees? Put away your anger? Don’t even lust in your heart? Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? What was Jesus thinking? That’s works righteousness. Impossible.”
So Lutherans for centuries now have said that Jesus was only saying these things to put us on our knees to pray for the grace of God’s forgiveness. Because no one can actually do these things.
But the final verses in today’s passage, 5:17-20, is Jesus’ alert that he knows what he is asking is difficult — a justice to exceed the Pharisees! But Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the shadow of Nazi Germany, was a Lutheran who began to take these verses seriously again — well aware, too, that a Hindu man in India was bringing them to life in exciting new ways.
People like Bonhoeffer and Gandhi are helping us contemporary Lutherans to finally change our tune on this, reviving the crucial importance of Matthew 5. Not only can we do these things, but that’s exactly what grace means: namely, God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, gives us the power to do them. Not only that, but it is essential to our ultimate salvation as creatures made in God’s image. It is nothing less than the Way to a New Aliveness. If we human beings resist this grace of being able to love like God loves, if we continue to turn aside and ignore being made in God’s image to love, then the powers of sin and death will continue to destroy us. I believe with all my heart, from head to toes, that what we are talking about is that important. Our very survival may depend on it. Our salvation turns on it. God’s grace is the power to live according to Matthew 5. We finally get to be the human beings God created us to be!
In 2017 we live under the shadow of a hate-filled, conflict-oriented presidency of Donald Trump. The challenge to live the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount — to be light and salt for the world — is as important as ever.
In 2015, our parish went off the RCL for Lent to use the lectionary suggested in Brian McLaren‘s book We Make the Road By Walking, where the season of Lent focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. For the 2nd Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 5:17-48 (the Gospel Reading for Epiphany 5A (this page), Epiphany 6A, and 7A) — Chapter 28, “A New Path to Aliveness.” I took my sermon in a different direction from McLaren’s, but borrowed the title: “A New Path to Aliveness.” Matthew 5:17-20 plays a crucial role setting up my reading of 5:21-48.
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
1. René Girard. Verse 8 — “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” — is one of the most oft quoted verses from the Bible by Girard, and then by Girardians. Citations in his works include: Things Hidden, p. 193; I See Satan, p. 152; Evolution and Conversion, p. 261; Battling to the End, p. xiv.
Reflections and Questions
1. St. Paul is trying to explain why some people can see and hear the gospel and others can’t. Worldly wisdom just gets in the way. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians “flesh” is a barrier. Opposed to both of these is “Spirit.” Spirit would seem to be the reason some can see and hear the gospel.
I’m tempted to try to say more than St. Paul. His answer seems so mystical. But I don’t think I can come up with any better explanation. I feel like Girard’s anthropology helps me to see and hear even more clearly that wisdom from God which has been hidden from us since the foundation of the world. But many people still reject Girard’s work right along with the gospel. No doubt, they are impeded by the same things: “worldly wisdom” (i.e., wisdom from the perspective of the Prosecutor, the Accuser, Satan) and “flesh” (“rivalrous desire”?). Why do I begin to see things from the perspective of the Spirit (the Paraclete, the Defender)? I don’t know.
I do know that it began at the Resurrection, when the Risen Christ became present to the apostles as forgiveness. Without that event of forgiveness, we can never come to see that which has been hidden. Jesus told his disciples (John 14-17) that the Spirit wouldn’t come to them until these things happened. And the rulers of this age would never have crucified Jesus if they knew this would happen. They let the light out from under the shroud of myth. But, in doing so, that Spirit is now present to many who continue to keep their eyes and ears closed to it. Why? I can say with St. Paul that the Spirit enables me. But why doesn’t the Spirit enable everyone?
2. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, see especially pp. 129ff. Rohr combines three perspectives that are immensely helpful to me: Catholic spirituality in the tradition of Thomas Merton, the Emerging Church, and Girardian anthropology (the only footnote in the entire book, p. 4, acknowledges his gratitude to the work of Girard and Gil Bailie).
3. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, uses Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as a centerpiece by making it the most-oft cited passage in the book, including two chapters devoted to it — Ch. 14, “Kingdom Manifesto” and Ch. 15, “Kingdom Ethics,” with a good summary of the entire Sermon on pp. 135-36. The best reflections on the salt and light imagery come in Ch. 10, “Secret Agents of the Kingdom,” when McLaren is lamenting the empty cathedrals in Europe:
What went wrong in those cathedrals? And what is going wrong in much of the stagnant, tense, or hyped-up religiosity of churches in my own country? Those questions take us beyond the scope of this book, but you can guess one of my main hunches: the Christian religion continues to sing and preach and teach about Jesus, but in too many places (not all!) it has largely forgotten, misunderstood, or become distracted from Jesus secret message. When we drifted from understanding and living out his essential secret message of the kingdom, we became like flavorless salt or a blown-out lightbulb — so boring that people just walked away. We may have talked about going to heaven after we die, but not about God’s will being done on earth before we die. We may have pressured people to be moral and good or correct and orthodox to avoid hell after death, but we didnt inspire them with the possibility of becoming beautiful and fruitful to heal the earth in this life. We may have instructed them about how to be a good Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist on Sunday, but we didn’t train, challenge, and inspire them to live out the kingdom of God in their jobs, neighborhoods, families, schools, and societies between Sundays.
We may have tried to make people nice — quiet citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers in their earthly economies — but we didn’t fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God. No, too often, Karl Marx was right: we used religion as a drug so we could tolerate the abysmal conditions of a world that is not the kingdom of God. Religion became our tranquilizer so we wouldn’t be so upset about injustice. Our religiosity thus aided and abetted people in power who wanted nothing more than to conserve and preserve the unjust status quo that was so profitable and comfortable for them. (pp. 84-85)
He comments on the second part of this lection in several places — for the first time on p. 16, when he is placing Jesus in his political context of the four major Jewish traditions of the First Century: Zealots, Herodians (Sadducees), Essenes, and Pharisees. If you were trying to place Jesus among these four while listening to the Sermon on the Mount, 5:17-20 would be a clue clue that he wasn’t a Pharisee. McLaren expands on this in Ch. 14, after quoting these verses:
This last statement — if there is anything like a thesis statement to this sermon — would probably earn that title. The scribes (or religious scholars) and the Pharisees are seen as and see themselves as the guardians and paragons of personal piety, goodness, morality, uprightness, decency, justice, and fairness (all of which seem to be wrapped up in the complex and pregnant word righteousness). It would be scandalous, perhaps even ridiculous to suggest that the Scribes and Pharisees are not entering the kingdom and that those who wish to enter the kingdom must do better than they.
These words would be profoundly disruptive and insulting to these religious leaders and to others who were similarly snug and smug in their insider status. No wonder Jesus begins by affirming his fidelity to the Jewish Sacred Writings. No wonder he pledges that he has not come to abolish the Sacred Writings — not to break them, annul them, or water them down (although he will be accused of these very things) — but to fulfill them. (p. 121)
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4), two sections entitled “The Visible Church-Community” and “The Righteousness of Christ,” pp. 110-120.
5. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 195-196; his treatment of the Sermon and the Mount, and of Matthew’s Gospel in general, singles this passage out as an important one. The theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of “the law or the prophets,” not as its abolishment, is not only important in this explicit statement of it but also in the entire way that Matthew structures his gospel. He is constantly stating the events of Jesus’ life as a fulfillment of prophecy. And is it an accident that Matthew has Jesus offer five major discourses (chs. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 24-25), the same number as the books of the Torah?
6. James Alison, “The Man Born Blind from Birth and the Subversion of Sin,” Contagion, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, pp. 26-46; now also ch. 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment. Alison makes brief but very apt use of Mt. 5:20 near the conclusion of the essay. His exegesis of John 9 is wonderful, but I’ll save that for another time (or for you to read now on your own — it’s very similar to his exposition of the same passage in The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 120-123) and give you the conclusion he is working toward:
***** Excerpt from Alison essay on John 9 ****
If you are anything like me, when you read the story of the man born blind, it is evident straight away that there is a good guy and some bad guys. That is to say, leaving Jesus to one side for the moment, there is the blind man, the good guy, and the Pharisees, the bad guys. What is normal is that all our sympathy is on the side of the former blind man, and our just despite is reserved for the Pharisees. In fact, that we should put ourselves on the side of the victim operates as something of a cultural imperative. And this cultural imperative can be very important: in fact, for any who feel themselves excluded, or treated as defective, by the reigning social and moral order, it is of incalculable importance to discover that this feeling of being excluded or defective has nothing to do with God, that it is purely a social mechanism, and God rather wants to include us and carry us to a fullness of life which will probably cause scandal to the partisans of the reigning order. Well, indeed, it seems to me that this cultural imperative is extremely important, and I know nobody who is not capable, in some way or other, of feeling identified with the victim in some part of her life. The problem is that this ‘being identified with the victim’ can come to be used as an arm with which to club others: the victims become the group of the “righteous just” in order to exclude the poor Pharisees, who are never in short supply as the butts of easy mockery.
Well, it seems to me that John 9 takes us beyond this inversion of roles which it apparently produces. We find it, for cultural reasons which are, thank God, unstoppable, easy to identify with the excluded one, and difficult to identify with the “righteous just”. But for this very reason it seems to me that this chapter requires of us a great effort, which I scarcely show signs of making, to read the story with something like sympathy for the Pharisees. When all is said and done, we don’t pick up even a little bit of the force of the story until we realize what a terrible shake up it administers to our received notions of good and evil. In a world where nobody understood the viewpoint of the victim, we would all be right to side with the victim. But we live in a world where almost nobody “comes out” as a Pharisee or a hypocrite, and it seems to me that the way to moral learning proceeds in that direction.
I’ve underlined how the story functions as a subversion from within of the notion of sin, and this is absolutely certain, and we must never lose this intuition. Well now: the process of subversion goes a long way beyond this. This is because the excluded victim accedes, thanks to this subversion, to the possibility of speech, and of talking about himself and about God. However, in exactly that moment, he has to learn to un-pharisee his own discourse. The very moment he accedes to the word he ceases to be the excluded one, and has to begin to learn how not to be an expeller. And this is the genius of morals by story, rather than by laws or virtues: in the story there are two positions: that of the victim and that of the expellers, just as in the story of the prodigal son there is the ‘bad’ brother who receives forgiveness, and the ‘good’ brother who never wandered, and does not know of his need for forgiveness. And we don’t grasp the force of the story, nor its exigency as a divine subversion of the human. if we don’t identify with the two positions at the same time.
I don’t think that there’s anybody here who isn’t partially excluded and partially an excluder, in whom the two poles of this story don’t cohabit. For, the moment we have access to the moral word, which is certainly the case at the very least for all of us who are receiving some sort of theological education, we can’t grasp on to our ‘goodness’ as excluded ones, but have to begin to questions ourselves as to the complicity of our use of words, and above all our use of religious and theological words, in the creation of an expulsive goodness.
In this sense it seems to me that the key instruction of the New Testament with relation to moral discourse, and it is a doubly sacred instruction, for it is one of the very few places where Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures with absolute approval; the key instruction for those of us who are trying to make use of the religious word in some moral sense, and there is no moral theology that is not that, is: “But go and learn what it means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.” (Mt 9:13, quoting Hos 6:6) Please notice that this is now no longer an instruction just for the Pharisees, but is, so to speak, the programme-guide for whoever tries to do moral theology. Being good can never do without the effort to learn, step by step, and in real circumstances of life, how to separate religious and moral words from an expelling mechanism, which demands human sacrifice, so as to make of them words of mercy which absolve, which loose, which allow Creation to be brought to completion. And this means that there is no access to goodness which does not pass through our own discovery of our complicity in hypocrisy, for it is only as we identify with the righteous just of the story that we realize how “good” their procedure was, how careful, scrupulous, law-abiding, they were, and thus, how catastrophic our goodness can be, if we don’t learn step by step how to get out of solidarity with the mechanism of the construction of the unity of the group by the exclusion of whoever is considered to be evil….
[After reciting a story about a European Cardinal recently accused of a past sexual misconduct, he concludes:
…Those who now marginalize the Cardinal, including his ecclesiastical colleagues, have participated in a Christian seeming “inversion” of the matter: the pharisee has been transformed into the bad guy. But have they participated in an authentically Christian subversion of the story? Subversion goes much further than inversion, because subversion keeps alive the same mechanism even when the protagonists change. Now, the bad guy, the victim in the center of the circle of the “righteous just” is the Cardinal. For some people he deserves it. But, are we satisfied with that? Could it be that our gossip is to be transformed only into the Gospel of “he got his just reward”? I fear that, if we speak thus, then our justice really is no greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, who knew very well how to say about marginalized people “he received his just reward”, and who will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 5:20)… Which of us has spoken out publicly, yet without hate, against the violence of the ‘ecclesiastical closet’ which fuels a mechanism of covering up and expelling, and expelling to cover up, so strong that it is not simply a question of some vicious individuals, but of a structure which lends itself especially to this vice? And this structure means that the matter cannot be talked about in terms of this or that sinner, who can be expelled or marginalized when they are discovered. It means rather that it is an exigency of a real moral theology that it stops and analyses the system which typically produces this vicious behavior, to which far too many of its members fall victim, whether as expelled or as expellers….
…I said at the beginning that this is only a first attempt to carry out a reading of John 9 in such a way as to allow us a sketch of an approach to moral theology that is somewhat removed from the moral discourse to which we are accustomed. I know very well that we are scarcely beginning. However, I’d like to underline this: what the Christian faith offers us in the moral sphere is not law, nor a way of shoring up the order or structure of the supposed goodness of this world, much less the demand that we sally forth on a crusade in favor of these things. It offers us something much more subtle. It offers us a mechanism for the subversion from within of all human goodness, including our own. This is the same thing as saying that the beginning of a Catholic moral life is a stumbling into an awareness of our own complicity in hypocrisy, and a becoming aware of quite how violent that hypocrisy is. Starting from there we can begin to stretch out our hands to our brothers and sisters, neither more nor less hypocritical than ourselves, who are on the way to being expelled from the “synagogue” by an apparently united order, which has an excessive and militant certainty as to the evil of the other. Let us then go and learn what this means: “I want mercy and not sacrifice.”
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
7. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, footnote 11 on p. 122. Though he doesn’t specify Matthew 5:20, he would seem to be making the same connection between John 9 and Matt 5:20 when he says:
Exactly the same notion of subversion from within can be applied to the Matthaean handling of the relationship between Jesus and the Law: he came not to abolish, but to fulfil the law. However, this fulfilment is not a mere tightening up of the law, but a re-casting of the law around the persons of victims, who therefore become the criteria by which the law is to be understood. Thus the fulfilment of the law is a subversion from within of the current understanding of the law: and was rightly seen as subversive by those who regarded themselves as the guardians of the law.
8. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life. Hardin features the Sermon on the Mount in section 1.4, “The Life of the Kingdom of God,” pages 48-58. He lays out four traditional strategies for reading it and then offers a fifth: as Christian catechesis similar to The Didache. He says, for example,
The practices of letting go of anger, turning the other cheek, loving ones enemies, forswearing oaths, living a chaste life, trusting in God for the necessities of life were taught before not after one committed ones life to Christ. Why was this? I think it is because these values and behaviors were so decidedly different than those commonly found in either Jewish or Gentile cultures. From the outside one could see that the Christians were different, but in order to join them, a trial period of really learning how to live this lifestyle was necessary.
How different this is from today where we encourage people to get saved and then, if they are fortunate, we teach them what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For the early church there was not a separation of salvation and discipleship, in fact Christian formation was the prelude to acceptance of salvation, which was baptism into the body of Christ! (p. 52)
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015, our parish went off the RCL to use the lectionary suggested in Brian McLaren‘s book We Make the Road By Walking, where the season of Lent focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I applaud McLaren’s suggestion for a couple of reasons. One is that Lent was originally a time of preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, and there’s no better text for preparation of disciples than Matthew 5-7 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the same decision in his book Discipleship. Moreover, as such an essential text, it’s one of the biggest errors in the RCL that it falls towards the end of the Epiphany season in Year A — excerpts spread across Epiphany 4A-9A. In the years that Easter is early, we miss most of this passage. Following McLaren’s lectionary addresses this oversight.
For the 1st Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 5:1-16 (the Gospel Reading for Epiphany 4A and 5A) — Chapter 27, “A New Identity.” I took my sermon in a different direction from McLaren’s, using the Harry Potter series as an illustration, but borrowed the title: “A New Identity.”
For the 2nd Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 5:17-48 (the Gospel Reading for Epiphany 5A (this page), Epiphany 6A, and 7A) — Chapter 28, “A New Path to Aliveness.” I took my sermon in a different direction from McLaren’s, but borrowed the title: “A New Path to Aliveness.” Matthew 5:17-20 plays a crucial role setting up my reading of 5:21-48.
2. Matthew might seem like more of a legalist than St. Paul here, but Paul spoke of Christ fulfilling the Law of Love. Isn’t that what Matthew is aiming toward here, too? It would seem that way when, several verses later, Matthew’s Jesus is even compelling us to love our enemies.
A key to Alison’s argument (in the references above) is the distinction between inversion and “subversion from within.” By inversion, he is referring to the switching places of the main characters: the good guys becomes the bad guys, and vice versa. Inversion may see itself as overthrowing the structures, but it always leaves the deepest anthropological structure intact, i.e., the structure of dividing between good guys and bad guys, in the first place. Subversion from within, on the other hand, works on the mechanism at play which makes some people good guys and some people bad guys. And its not a simple overthrowing of the mechanism. It is a transforming it into something else. Transformation is different than destruction.
Most of our “revolutions” think we are overthrowing the structures-to-be, and we are in a sense; but we’re not overthrowing the deeper anthropological structure of sacrifice, we’re simply inverting the characters within that mechanism. Take Marxism as a less threatening, almost dead, example. Marxism thinks it is overturning the capitalist structures; and it is, of course. But its not touching the anthropological structure of sacrifice. It’s simply inverting the characters: the capitalists, who were the good guys in the capitalist system, are now the bad guys; and the proletariat becomes the good guys. Marxism is correct in its analysis that says the proletariat are sacrificed in the capitalist system. But aren’t the capitalists then sacrificed in the socialist system? This is merely inversion.
Alison is talking about a subversion from within. Last week we spoke of sacrifice subverted into self-sacrifice. This week we might say that righteous law, or self-righteous law, is transformed into merciful law, the Law of Love, i.e., a law which graciously transforms the Other into righteousness. (Is this the Lutheran imputation of righteousness?) Rather than a self-righteous law, we have an Other-righteous law. We might say that the Cross and Resurrection of Christ transform other-sacrifice into self-sacrifice and self-righteousness into other-righteousness.
3. Link to a sermon, entitled “Rise, Shine, You People,” that connects Matthew’s “Let your light shine” passage to Alison’s exposition of the John 9 passage and being able to distinguish the light from the darkness.