Epiphany VII Matthew 5:38-48 2/19/17 Epiphany, Norfolk

I was very proud of myself last week for gifting Julia with the readings for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany. I slid out from under them, nicely. Then I read our readings for today. THESE are the readings that Julia should have gotten.

And where did they even come from? Well, they’ve always been there, but we don’t usually have seven Sundays after Epiphany. It all depends on when Easter falls. Last year Easter was as early as it can be. This year it is as late as it can be. That means there are a bunch of readings that seldom get read, and today’s are some of those.

Our first Reading is from Leviticus, the Old Testament Book of Do’s and Don’ts. It’s sort of another version of the Ten Commandments, but there are a lot more than ten in this passage. It is presented as God speaking to Moses and telling him to say these things to the people. They become a moral code of living for the Hebrew People. And I can’t take issue with any of them. They tell us how to live a just and good life, and every one of them makes sense. And I probably do a pretty good job of living by them, and I think you do, too. They weave together a moral life style that helps take care of the poor, protects the innocent and disabled, avoids vengeance and grudges, and generally provides for a good, responsible, communal life. It’s a beautifully written passage.

There is one special note of interest in this text, and it’s part of the Hebrew literary style and theology. Interspersed throughout the reading is the phrase “I am the Lord.” This is much more special than it appears. For the ancient Hebrews, the name of God is any form of the “verb to be.” And that carries all through both the Old and New Testament. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other Gods but me.” “In the beginning was the word.” And in today’s reading: “I am the Lord.” The Hebrews could not speak the name of God, so they used nicknames like Yahweh and Elohim. But they could also use any form of “the verb to be”, and people would know that it referred to God. When reading scripture, watch for any form of “the verb to be.”

Our Psalm is a song celebrating the statutes and decrees passed down from God. It doesn’t see the commandments as a burden, but as a way of preserving life. It’s beautiful, and lots and lots of music has been written around these words.

Our second Reading is from Paul’s 2nd Epistle to his church in Corinth. It’s a teaching Epistle, and a good reading – very typical of Paul.

Then we get Matthew. This takes everything else that has been written, and ratchets it up a few notches. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” “If anyone wants your coat, give your cloak as well.” “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” “Give to everyone who begs from you.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”

Did Jesus really say these things? Well, this comes from Matthew, which was probably written in Jerusalem, and probably written very soon after Jesus’ death. He probably didn’t say these things all at one time, but chances are very good that this was part of his teaching. And in another passage when a group of his disciples tells him that his teachings are too hard, and they leave him, we can see why.

I don’t know about you, but these are expectations that I can’t meet. In fact, I don’t think I even want to try to meet them. I don’t want to give to everyone who begs from me, no matter what my resources. I’ll try to help somebody out, if I can, but not everybody who begs from me.

Love my enemies? I’m glad I don’t have many enemies because I can’t do that. I can turn from my wrath and vengeance, but I can’t love someone who is doing me harm. And if someone strikes me on the right cheek, I don’t think I’m going to offer the left. Do you think I’m crazy? I can work hard to be a good person, but I can’t follow these principles.

So what do we do about this? I think the key is in the first line of our reading: “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…..”

Jesus’ life time was a very violent and brutal period in Hebrew history. The land was under Roman occupation, and the Romans didn’t take any mess off the Jews. It was a rough and brutal occupation of the land. And even the Jews weren’t getting along with each other. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were fighting it out on the religious front. The temple was corrupt. The government was weak, almost non-existent. Starvation was everywhere. It wasn’t working. The great Hebrew kingdom of King David was in ruins. Nothing good was happening. One of the writers of the period describes approaching Jerusalem through a sea of crosses along the road with bodies hanging on them as a reminder from Rome that this was a place of violence, injustice, torture, pain, starvation, and hopelessness. And Jesus was trying to say, “There is a better way. We don’t have to live like this. We can do better.” And of course, he ended up hanging on one of those crosses. But he tried.

And I guess that’s the best any of us can do – is try. I can’t live the life Jesus describes. I know I can’t. But I can try, just a little bit. Maybe I can’t turn the left cheek, but I don’t have to lash back. Maybe I can’t give to every beggar, but I don’t have to be rude about it. Maybe I can’t love my enemies, but maybe I can avoid making enemies. This is a hard teaching. But it offered hope in a hopeless situation.

We’re living in a tough time right now. And we have to work to keep it from getting out of control. We have to work to find reason. We have to work to prevent violence. We have to work to listen and hear each other. And maybe that’s as hard as Jesus’ teachings were to his time in history. We just have to do what we can.

This teaching ends with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I am a very imperfect person. Being perfect like the heavenly Father doesn’t even compute for me. I just have to try to do what I can do to make my little corner of this world a better place.


Posted February 22, 2017 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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