Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany Year A

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; OR Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37 

Robert Alter writes that in the 30th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, "the mythological and heroic era [which sought secret, esoteric knowledge from another world] ... is at an end, for God's word, inscribed in a book, has become the property of every person." (The Five Books of Moses, p.1029)  The moral reality of the universe is now within the imagination of individual human beings.  And, following it is literally the difference between "life and prosperity," on the one hand, or "death and adversity," on the other.  Faithfulness to the Lord's "commandments, decrees, and ordinances" result in a good life for all; alternatives lead to complete chaos and destruction.  "...I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses."  Now, "Choose life...."


The 2nd century B.C. wisdom writer, Jesus be Sirach, paraphrases Deuteronomy (30:15-9) and Jeremiah (21:8), in expanding on the realization that human beings make our own choices.  "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice."  But understand it is life a choice between "fire and water," "life and death."  The Lord "sees" our choices, but does not "command" them. 

The longest psalm (and also the longest chapter in the Hebrew Bible, 176 lines of poetry) begins with its central premise: "Happy...are those who walk in the Lord's teaching." 

Paul attributes factionalism in the church to "human inclinations," and then writes that the church should see itself as "God's servants," "God's field, God's building."

Matthew goes a good deal further in expressing Jesus' understanding of God's expectations; it is not just the letter of the Law nor the behavior others can see, but the spirit and our motivations that bear scrutiny.  So for one thing, it is not just murder that is "liable to judgment" but mundane "anger with a brother or sister" or just an "insult...." that also requires accountability.  A clear conscience with others should precede presenting any gifts to God.  Stay out of the courts with any grievances with others.  It is not just adultery that is to be avoided, but adultery "in the heart," as well.  Divorce may be 'lawful', but it is to be avoided.  Although swearing oaths may be the normal way to aver one's integrity, the new teaching is, "let your word be a simple, credible 'Yes, Yes' or No, No'...."

Biblical morality shatters every human definition of goodness.  It is a "supramorality" or "hypermorality," to use Paul Ricoeur's language.  It also goes deeper into the human psyche, especially in Matthew's text.  It is not just our actual, public actions, but our deepest motives, moods, attitudes, and emotions that come under unnerving scrutiny.   So, where does all this "hyper" and "supra" take us?  It can, and has, led to many kinds of puritianisms, (which as H.L.Mencken noted usually focuses on the behavior of others rather then one's own!).  It can also lead to psychological anxieties and even violent acting-out in the names of religions.  But it can also lead us to a "hyper" or "supra" gracefulness.  Ricoeur writes: "Parables, paradoxes, hyperboles, and extreme commandments all disorient only in order to reorient us.  But what is reoriented in us? and in what direction?  I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than our imaginations.  Our will is our capacity to  follow without hesitation the once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law.  Our imagination is the power to open us to new possibilities, to discover another way of seeing, or acceding to a new way in receiving the instruction of the exception."  "And what directions do these sayings of Jesus imprint upon our ethical imagination?"  "It is this giving more that appears to me to constitute the point of these extreme commands."  (Figuring the Sacred, p. 281)  Because the sayings of Jesus, especially  in Matthew's text, go beyond a 'code' of ethics into a 'psychology' of ethics, they stimulate our "imaginations" so we go deeper into all that motivates us, the impact of even our most mundane actions on ourselves and others and leave us with the realization that without some gracefulness in our lives-- grace from those we offend and some grace given to those who offend us-- (which Ricoeur says is another kind of "hyper" and "supra,"  which is what he regards as all part of the"logic" or "concept" of "superabundance")-- we will cause even more pain and hurt than we otherwise would.  We can never extricate ourselves from our humanity, but we can become more humane!