Friday, February 10, 2017

February 12, Proper 2, Righteousness #6: You Shall Choose

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Our gospel lesson is the third out of four through Matthew 5, which is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount.

In our lesson today Our Lord exaggerates. He’s extreme. Excessive. Exceeding. Last week he admitted as much, that we exceed the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness. He is certainly provocative. Is he intentionally unreasonable? Does he mean to be disruptive?

It is a risky strategy. The method to the madness of the White House is provocation, disruption of institutions, and chaos by design. The chaos allows the president or chancellor or party secretary, whatever, to gather power and become the savior of the nation. You recognize that the scribes and Pharisees considered the Lord Jesus to be playing this dangerous game.

But Our Lord gave his power away. It wasn’t chaos he was after but liberation and service. What last Sunday Isaiah had called “the lifting of the burden and the freeing of the yoke.” Yet Jesus is certainly being provocative to ethics and disruptive of logic.

Consider the movement of the Sermon on the Mount, how it has swung from one extreme to the other. First, two weeks ago, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you right now, in your hunger, in your meekness, in your mourning, you have the Kingdom of Heaven just by your simply desiring righteousness,” and then, last week, he moved it towards the middle, “You are the salt, be salty, you are the light, bear light,” and then to the other extreme, “You will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees!” The opposite of the Beatitudes in the span of just ten verses!

Today’s lesson stays in that hard extreme. Our Lord tosses off four examples of excessive righteousness. “You’ve heard the scribes and Pharisees say this, but I’m telling you this!” You’ve heard the scribes and Pharisees teach a doable, respectable, observable, trackable, and manageable kind of righteousness, and each time I’m calling for a radical righteousness that sounds unreasonable.

You call someone a jerk and you’re up on charges? You take a second look at a woman and then cut out your eye? Cut off your hand? Is he suggesting a more stringent legalism even more burdensome than before?

To be fair, I can tell you that in the lesson next Sunday his two further examples of excessive righteousness display a swing back to the first extreme of the Beatitudes, the examples of extreme non-violence and extravagant generosity, but even those non-legalistic examples are so challenging as to seem impossible. We will come back to those next week.

Let me also say that because of our cultural differences we might miss Our Lord’s radical generosity already here, in these examples, to women. It’s a cliche that “Matthew doesn’t do girls” (Prof. Minka Sprague), not compared to Luke and John. But here, in Matthew, the Lord Jesus makes the man responsible for his own lust. In orthodox Judaism and Islam and among some Christians the woman is responsible to hide her body by her clothing. Not with Jesus. It’s the man who has to cut his eye out!

Similar is what he says about divorce. He makes the man responsible for any adultery by his ex-wife. Remember that traditionally a woman had no say in her marriage, she had no rights in the matter. She went from being the property of her father to the property of her husband. So she cannot be guilty of the adultery she falls to.

And even for that, adultery is not some unpardonable sin; in Matthew it’s an action, not a state, and a relationship that begins in adultery need not remain so, if there’s repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And reconciliation is the remedy that the Lord Jesus calls for in the first example.  He’s not setting up new legalisms here, but offering examples of righteousness to challenge you, compel you, and boil things down to the heart of the matter.

“Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.” Inner certainty, maturity, calm self-direction. This new kind of righteousness is inner-directed, from your own orientation, rather than outer-directed, according to the laws. It’s not that you’re always observing, but that you’re always choosing, you’re always expressing, and not by what they want but what you want.

What do you choose? Choose life. Don’t choose death. Choose life by choosing righteousness. The laws of the Lord do have value by guiding your choosing, informing your choosing, but it still comes down to your own choosing, so that the Kingdom of Heaven not just be out there, but that it grow within your heart; the goal of the Kingdom is to restore you personally as the image of God. And to bear the image of God is to share God’s freedom, the freedom to choose the good.

According to Deuteronomy, to choose life is to choose against idolatry. You can’t be neutral. To not choose God is to choose the idolatry that is the inclination of human nature. Idolatry, whether it be ancient or modern, is when we exalt anything natural to such power and promise that we sacrifice for it:

Wealth, beauty, success, security, race, ethnicity, gender, nation, even spirituality. The slogan “America first” begs idolatry. Ideologies are idolatrous, like capitalism, communism, even socialism and patriotism. You want to find a truth to belong to that is larger than yourself, but then you cast God in its graven image.

To be fences against idolatry is the purpose of the commandments in the Bible, but that’s not enough. You still have to make constant judgment calls. You are always having to come back to yourself and what you want, and answer yes, yes or no, no. And as you say yes and as you say no you develop your character, your second nature. That’s the righteousness of choice.

According to First Corinthians, the choice is internal. If the external inclination of human nature is idolatry, the internal inclination is attachment. Of course attachment is a biological necessity, of infants to mothers, and children to families. But human animals go through this strange experience, which I think is the shadow side of our being uniquely in God’s image. At some point in our maturing to adulthood, we discover ourselves, and we experience an existential loneliness. We feel this as a deep woundedness, and we seek relief in attachments. Attachment is overloading relationships to compensate for our existential fear and loneliness.

“I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos.” I’m this. I’m that. I’m loyal to this group, I’m fighting for that group. There goes your simple yes and no. If I say yes, they may reject me. If I say no, they may revile me. And if they do, you might feel loneliness is better and withdraw behind defenses. You don't belong to anyone, a negative kind of freedom.

Most of you don't go that far, you stay with attachment. You gain your comfort by losing your freedom. The freedom of Christ is challenging because it threatens the loyalties and identities in which you sought comfort. But in the new kind of righteousness, you don’t decide by your attachments. Your answer is simply yes or no without defense or explanation. You are in God’s image, you belong to Christ, and this or that, simply, is what you want!

There is one last wrinkle. The scribes and Pharisees considered observation the means to make your way along the straight-and-narrow of obedience, blessing, and life. But the Lord Jesus does this provocative thing of making everybody guilty.

His examples are so excessive that we all fall short. We’re all liable to judgment, we’re all liable to the council, we’re all on the way to death, we’re all scheduled for that smoldering garbage dump called the Gehenna, the symbol of a shameful death. Or at least a piece of you, your eye, your hand, amputated and discarded to save the rest of you.

I am following Martin Luther here when I say that his provocation is to drive you to his grace, to his cross and resurrection, to his freely given righteousness that you get back from him. His personal excessive righteousness.

This is the mystical anchor of your ethics. This is how you can confidently keep choosing this and that, simply saying yes and no: you put your faith in the promise that it is God who is giving the growth of righteousness in you. You are a mystery, even to yourself, you are a living mystery of God’s love, that in your small attempt to live the Christian life, the righteousness of God is growing in the world. God even chooses what you choose, that is how much God loves you.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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