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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before February 16, 2014

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Matthew 5:21-37

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

What I am Learning:

In this passage, Jesus seems to be saying that not only are our actions important, but our intentions and our inner thoughts and feelings are important as well. It is certainly true that human beings can cultivate attitudes of anger or peace, hatred or love. These attitudes often lead to actions, they provide the soil in which our actions take root. As such, our inner life is worth our attention. We can amend our inner soil in spiritual practices and theological reflection so that when under stress of conflict, we have the vision and skills to seek peace.

This is one way to understand this text.

Often Christians interpret these verses from Matthew to mean that God is a perfectionist who requires not only loving actions but loving feelings if we are to “go to heaven when we die.” I will confess right now that my heart is not always full of loving feelings.

If God is a perfectionist in this way then I am screwed. I get angry at people who drive 67 miles an hour in the fast lane on I-5. I think they increase the danger of an accident. They slow me down. I have said, “Can’t they read the sign – Keep Right Except to Pass?” So if God is a perfectionist about inner feelings and emotional reactions then I am under judgment.

But just because Jesus invites us to look at our inner life, does not mean that God is a perfectionist about it. I have decided that my anger at slow pokes in the fast lane is not worth my energy. So I make a decision about what how to handle the situation and move on. First world problems!

The social sciences commentators do not think this text, however, was really about managing our inner, psychological life. They say that this text was about how first century Christians could maintain their unity as a community.

The last 5 of the Ten Commandments are really about respecting other people’s boundaries. When people did not respect other’s boundaries in these ancient societies, families would begin to feud with each other and kill each other. This could get so out of hand that the whole community would be in jeopardy.

Matthew’s community may have been experiencing a lot of conflict within itself. With all the external challenges they faced this could have led to their death as a community. So he addresses some key issues:

1. If you are angry with a fellow Christian, go and talk to them. In fact, this act of talking to those we feel estranged from is more important than the act of worship itself!

2. If you feel sexually attracted to another person’s spouse work on that!

3. Don’t divorce your spouse willy nilly, because it can cause dishonor to your spouses’ family.

4. Take the time to figure out if you can do something or not. And if you choose to do something, then do it.

In this passage, Jesus uses some pretty powerful language. In both the first century and in ours we often communicate using hyperbole – that is dramatic exaggeration to make a point. I do not think that he is asking us to cut off body parts!

But it may be that the suggestion to pluck out an eye is actually a literary reference from the Hebrew scripture. In 1 Samuel 11:12, Nahash the Ammonite threatened to take out the right eye of every Jewish person to disgrace them.  Jesus may be saying that it is better to suffer dishonor in the community than to cause strife in the community. (From Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)

For those of us who live in Western, individualist culture, this passage reminds us to cultivate our inner conversation and attitudes so that we can live out love and use our energy wisely. What cross-cultural studies add is the high value Jesus placed on relationships within the Christian community.

Of course for us the inner life and our life in community are deeply connected. How I think about myself and my sisters and brothers does set the stage for how I treat others.

I do not think God is a perfectionist who is watching every thought, nor is Jesus advocating for us to be perfectionists toward ourselves. Such perfectionism is also an inner thought! But I do think that some reactions, feelings, and attitudes are not worth my energy as a child of God.

As organic farmers are teaching us, when you have a pest or a disease in a plant, think about amending the soil or adding a helpful bug to manage it. This is my way of saying: when you seek to bring change to your inner life, do so with some gentleness toward yourself. Such gentleness may help you in relating to others. Such gentleness reflects how God relates to you.