Friday, January 21, 2011

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany Year A

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A 
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Leviticus 19:1-2.9-18; Psalm 119: 33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48 

This excerpt from what has come to be called the "Holiness Code" (chapters 17-26 of Leviticus) instructs Moses to announce to God's people: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."  And then the traits of this "holiness" are identified very specifically.  Leave some of your bounty ("harvest") for the poor and the alien among you.  Do not swear falsely, in particular, "profaning the name of your God."  Do not lie, defraud your neighbor, nor withhold wages from anyone to whom you owe them.  Do not mock the deaf person, who cannot even hear what you are saying, nor sneak something in the path of a blind person.  Be impartial, fair to all persons, do not slander others.  Do not "profit by the blood [misfortune? suffering?] of your neighbor."  Do not hate, "take vengeance or bear a grudge... but you shall love your neighbor as yourself...."  These behaviors mimic the Lord's "holiness."

The psalmist prays that the Lord will "instruct/give/guide/incline/fulfill" the Lord's "statutes/teaching/path/precepts/utterances" while, at the same time, "avert" his eyes from falsehood.  "I have desired Your decrees/In your bounty give me life."

Paul deals with a specific, pressing problem-- factionalism in the church in Corinth-- within the context of much broader teaching.  Whoever is doing God's work in the church, he writes, whatever that work, it all rests on the same foundation, "Jesus Christ."  If Christ is the foundation, Paul reasons, then all in the church are "God's temple."  If you are God's temple, do you not recognize that "God's spirit dwells in you?"  Paul's rhetoric now leaps among several points: any who "destroy" any in the church are destroying God's temple; do not become "wise" in "the world's" eyes, but in God's; do not put your trust in "human leaders."  All these questions, concerns, issues, as well as any about "the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God."

Matthew continues (see last Sunday's comments) his expanded rendition of Jesus' teaching by alluding to specific, well-known, important sections from the Hebrew scriptures (in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus) and taking them much further.  The familiar teaching, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," is altered: "do not resist an evil doer."  The text (parallels Luke here) where Jesus instructs to respond to violence with pacifism and thievery with an offer to take even more of one's possessions.  Matthew adds: If anyone forces you to go one mile, go a second mile.  Matthew's text again cites well-known passages about fair treatment of neighbors from the scriptures (from Deuteronomy and Leviticus) and then writes that Jesus went further, "But I say to you, love your enemy...."   This is the behavior that befits God's sons and daughters, nothing else.  God has God's own reasons for what appears to be arbitrary fortune or misfortune in life.  Exceed conventional expectations.  "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

The texts of Leviticus and Matthew are not, we must presume, making ontological statements when they say to be "perfect" or "holy" as God; only God is holy.  But we must presume they do mean that we can mimic the specific traits of God, which each text spells out in detail.  In the "Holiness Code," the specific traits of God we ought to mimic are fairness and non-exploitation of others, especially those who are most fragile or vulnerable; in Matthew's version of Jesus' teaching, we ought to "go the second mile" in every sense not only with our neighbors but even with our enemies (!), leaving to God to sort out the consequences of each person's behavior.  In the First Testament, Holiness = Justice for neighbor; in the Second Testament, that formula is expanded in its interpretation and its application, even to one's enemy.   "Offer the other cheek."

What do we actually do with these injunctions?  Are they possible in the real world?  How do we possibly take seriously these impossible commands?

In an interview Jacques Derrida gave to the French magazine l'Humanist just four months before his death in October 2004, he mused on this kind of dilemma. "Ethics must do the impossible: To forgive can only happen where it is impossible to forgive...."  "...[H]ospitality must welcome unconditionally (which is impossible), responsible decision must judge without rules and without knowing how, etc.  Each time, ethics can only happen as impossible.  The impossible is the very possibility of ethics."

If ethical demand remains within the gasp of the (humanly) possible, then it becomes a system to be negotiated, manipulated, applied, executed.  But when the ethical demand remains always and everywhere finally beyond human conquest, it ignites a passion for the impossible; it pushes us beyond what we thought we were capable of or comfortable with.  It teaches us that only God is "holy/perfect," but we can aspire to those specific traits which make God God-- Justice, impossible Justice even for the least likely.