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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Choosing life or death in the reign of God (A6O)

It was (God) who created humankind in the beginning,
and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sir. 15:14b-17, NRSV)
For me, at least, it was painful to hear the "short version" of Sunday's gospel. It was like reading an outline, bullet points without nuance, in a passage which is already just a snippet of a longer passage which gives it its context, that is, of the Sermon on the Mount. We all understand that, as believers and Christians, there is a sense in which this should be all right. We are not, supposedly, hearing these
Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James
words for the first time. We are living these words already, the Church imagines. The little passages are just a reminder, a remembering, of what is already going on in our lives. The good news isn't really news to us. But hearing the short version of Sunday's gospel, one could wonder in fact if it were good. That was certainly borne out in my parish in the homilies, where the gospel was portrayed as some kind of "ideal," an unreachable goal, a way of behaving that only angels could achieve.

I don't think Jesus was interested in idealism. His point is that the only real life is life together in the kingdom, here and now, in this world. The entire Sermon on the Mount was a discourse on life in the empire of God, a domain that is already present and in which Jesus was living, and to which he invites disciples and others to join him. Jesus had taken up the cry of John the Baptizer (Mt 3:2) with his own proclamation of "turning around," because the "kingdom of God is at hand." (4:17) Matthew has Jesus gathering his disciples and others on a mountain, a traditional place of theophany and probably an allusion to Moses as well, and begins to teach them.

We need to keep hearing these succeeding passages as part of that larger announcement of what it means to live in the reign of God. As I said when discussing last week's gospel, the announcement isn't about something that will happen later: it's an unfolding of a current reality, of what it means to turn and find oneself in the empire of God, and not imprisoned in the empire of Tiberius or some other Caesar. He challenges his listeners to "think different," to drop the preconceptions and limitations of law and to live and love lavishly, as daughters and sons of Abba, a city on a hill, the light of the world, and the salt-catalyst for the earthen oven's fire. "God is already among you, makarioi, you who are blessed, fortunate. God is in your mercy, your hunger and thirst for a just world, your desire for peace, your mourning, your very lowliness. They've been telling you about the wrong God! They want you to think that God blesses the rich and powerful, but I've got good news for you. They're wrong."

The first reading Sunday seems to point us right at this interpretation of the gospel. It is about the choice between life and death, which, in the gospel, is the choice between empires. The hypertheses, or the set of sayings that have the form, "You have heard it said...but I say to you...", are Jesus's description of the "law" in the empire of God. "Look at the talion law. Where has that gotten us? An 'eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'? The violence never ends. Here's a different idea: stop your violent thoughts and violent speech. You are brothers and sisters, children of Abba. Act like it." Jesus's description of the outcome of continuing on the path of the old ways as leading to Gehenna is not about future punishment in hell, but about living with the consequences of an empire based on power and privilege. Gehenna was a site of child sacrifice near Jerusalem. If you don't want to be a part of that old-time religion, ritual murder that temporarily lances the festering boil of rage, violence, and lust, you have to turn around, make a change, live for a different God. Stop substituting religion (sacrifice at the altar) for actual reconciliation. Leave your gifts there, and start building a better world by authentic connections with difficult people.

These sayings continue next Sunday with what is perhaps the most under-rated and under-preached section of the Sermon on the Mount. Is there a more difficult commandment in the entire Christian Scripture than "love your enemy"? Does any verse of scripture more rankle modern self-help Christians than Christ's urging that we "be perfect"? And yet, in our restlessness, poverty, desire for peace and thirst for justice, we are already makarioi, fortunate, happily blessed, full of makar (big-ness). What can that mean, "be perfect"? It would be impossible, it seems to me, if Jesus hadn't already shown us the path for it, and introduced us to a God who has bent so low that we can see the pattern in a Samaritan's kindness, the dynamics of a shared meal, or a grain of wheat, planted in the ground.