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Visions from the Catacombs, Week Before February 12, 2017

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:

After two weeks of powerful and empowering gospel readings, we now get this. Jesus is now harshing our mellow. He seems to be back to legalism and "thou shalt nots."

But wait, maybe not!

In the first part of the Beatitudes Jesus overturns their score-keeping system. He lifts up a vision of who God honors - those who the bullying culture doesn't value. God honors and values the vulnerable and weak and sorrowful. And since all human beings, when we aren't pretending, are vulnerable, weak and sorrowful, God values all people - just not the status and power-over-others games we play.

Last week he tells his disciples (at this point in the story that's about 4 people) that they don't have to change the world through power over others. They don't have to play domination's game.  They can instead focus their energy on letting the light God has placed in them to shine. They can be salt that catalyzes the manure so that it can burn making food for the family. Light and salt help us to perceive the world. Light allows us to see and salt allows us to taste the food we eat.

No bulldozers needed. No bombs. No "One Facebook post to rule them all!" No forest fires or lightning bolts! He helped them to envision their own agency, their own God-given and therefore inalienable power.

God was asking them to let their light, a light given freely by God, to shine.

But letting our light shine is no simple matter. We can't hold our wands up to the sky and say "lumos maxima" and be done with it. The light that shines in us is through our public and private relationships.

The point of these verses and some that come after is this: our ways of relating to people has been warped by our power-over-others culture. Instead of reflecting God's light, we compete with each other. Instead of catalyzing the manure that is bullying we have taken on its qualities.

We have been shaped by a bullying culture and we have become consummate bullies - we are so good at bullying, so sophisticated at it, that we can even hide it from ourselves.

So to help his disciples prepare to be salt and light, he suggested that they begin what people in AA would call a rigorous moral inventory. Christians call it repentance - turning and being turned in a new direction, a new orientation.

Now let's take these verses on by paragraph, briefly.

The first paragraph deals with conflict. In Jesus' day, if you owed someone money and you could not pay, you likely would be put in a debtor's prison. You would not get out until you paid the last penny. This harshness is only one example of how people were playing for keeps with each other. People were holding their anger in until it became so hard they had no mercy for each other.

So Jesus told them to rigorously look inward at their attitudes toward their neighbor and to deal with their conflicts directly and quickly. To be people of peace, Jesus seems to say, is to engage in peaceful conflict management with our neighbors.

Second is the a conversation about adultery. In a bullying winner take all culture, men were constantly looking to gain status by having a richer, more well connected and more beautiful wife. This reduced women to objects, to consumer items, to trophies.

Jesus told them to rigorously look inward at their attitudes toward women and to realize that they were human.

Now for the paragraph about swearing.

I was in Seattle to protest the Muslim Ban and a young woman had a sign that was a take off on famous Martin Niemöller quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Her sign was a bit more simple and a bit more crass, as I suspect you could imagine.

I was wearing my collar so I said, "I suppose I'm not supposed to like that sign, but it is really my favorite." The people around laughed and said they would absolve me.

The swearing on the sign and the swearing we often think of is not naughty language, but rather making an oath to people by invoking God's name. This essentially made God a "co-signer" on your promise. When you broke your promise then God also was made into a liar.

Jesus told them to make their own agreements, to say "Yes" or to say "No" and not to diminish or objectify God by making God an accomplice to our posturing and lies.

The common thread in all of these is that in a competition for status, we are willing to objectify everyone: people we are angry at, women and men and marriage, and even God.

Jesus was not trying to be a perfectionist here. He was not saying that we must be perfect for God to love us.

Remember that "hell" is a valley just down from the little hill that is Mt. Zion where they used to sacrifice human babies in the name of God. The ultimate objectification of a human being - a tool to get in good with God - a means of worship that was soundly rejected by Jews in Jesus' day.

He was asking us to do a rigorous moral inventory so that we can recognize the holiness, the dignity and worth of ourselves, neighbor, our spouse and God.

As we begin to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of human beings we will begin to be salt and light to and for them as we create together a power-with-others culture.

As we begin to recognize the mystery of God, and therefore the universe that God created, the light of God shines not only through us, but through others to us.