Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Earthly actions have heavenly repercussions…
Or so it seems to say in this week’s section of the Sermon on the Mount. Reconciling with our brothers and sisters is inextricably linked to being reconciled to God. Ouch. Jesus has officially gone to meddling. Indeed our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees from last week’s pericope. The letter of the law isn’t enough; our spirits must conform to the spirit of the law, too.
While Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 recognizes that we are infants in the faith, Jesus calls us to a Christian maturity well beyond our years. How are we to grow up from the one to the other?
That may well be the rub this week. How do we listen to Jesus in the midst of all we are hearing in the world and in our own heads? There is a cacophony of voices telling us that alternative facts equal truth; and you have heard it say that screening of refugees is required, but I say extreme vetting is the new normal. The trajectory of the rhetoric of this age is one not of increased care of neighbor and neighborhood, but rather increased self-protection and exclusion.
Will we respond as infants in the faith, with continued divisions, quarreling and jealously, or as those mature in Christ, not only refraining from murder but refusing to capitulate to our anger as well?
Which will we choose? Life: loving the Lord and obeying God’s commands? Or death: bowing down to the gods of this age, the idols of security, wealth and power?
We, of course, know the correct answer. We choose life. We will put away our childish ways. We will grow in grace and abound in steadfast love. We know the correct answer, but even still we capitulate to the alternative facts. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
I am convinced that the only way we will hear and heed Jesus in these chaotic and difficult times is to listen carefully and in community. I am convinced that the only way our outward actions will match our inward hopes will be through prayer, worship and mutual accountability.
Two lectures I had the pleasure of hearing last week at Austin Seminary’s MidWinters event reminded me of this truth: one by Donyelle McCray of Yale Divinity School and another by Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego.
Donyelle McCray told the story of Howard Thurman, pastor, theologian, scholar and civil rights leader. She talked of Thurman’s ability to withstand scrutiny. She noted, “Ministry requires seeing others and letting others see us for who we are.” McCray pointed out that in our culture of social media we do a lot of looking, but very little seeing. Thurman understood the value of seeing himself and others through the lens of loving scrutiny. McCray reminded us of the Latin origin of the word “scrutiny,” which means not only “search” but “to sort trash.”
If we are to mature in Christ and not give in to our infantile impulses, we have to be open to sorting through the trash – the trash generated all around us and the trash generated in our own lives. We need our brothers and sisters to help us in this daunting, messy and often embarrassing task. This support and accountability will help our yes be yes and our no be no.
Jerry Andrews talked about Augustine and the role of friendships in his life. He said, “Augustine was never alone.” He was surrounded with a community of theological friends who practiced honesty and humility. They encouraged trust through risking vulnerability. They practiced equality and love – love that wasn’t afraid to offer correction because “the friend was more important than the friendship.”
If we are going to hear and heed Jesus, not only look but see, mature in Christ and not give in to the infantile, divisive, quarrelling both within the church and without, we must be reconciled to our brothers and sisters. We must surround ourselves with theological friends and together practice loving scrutiny. This may well feel meddlesome, particularly in our individualistic, hero-enamored, pick-and-choose world. But isn’t that the point? Jesus is calling us to live differently, differently than the faithful before us, differently than the world around us.
They city of Austin’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” Maybe Jesus is telling us: Be weird. Choose the truth over alternate facts, the interest of others over your own, put away childish ways and walk in love as Christ loves us. Welcome scrutiny because it invites integrity. Be reconciled over being right. Seek out friends in the faith who value you even more than the friendship itself. Seek to be that kind of friend, the one who would lay down your life for another.
In his essay, “The Good Neighborhood: Identity and Community through the Commandments,” Patrick Miller argues that the Ten Commandments create the space for a good neighborhood and that obeying them is done more for the sake of the community than for individual righteousness or an individual’s relationship with God. For example, bearing false witness is not “a general prohibition about lying.” Not coveting isn’t about resisting “greed or consumerism.” He writes, “Lodged within the moral space of the last Commandment, greed has to do with its effects against the neighbor, not so much with a generally inordinate love of things or desire of things as with a desire for the things of the neighbor that leads to other acts against the neighbor – killing, adultery, stealing, false witness, and so forth. To the extent, then, that broader matters come into view, for example, greed and consumerism, they do so as neighbor concerns for the good of the neighborhood.”
Miller’s interpretation hints at the added ante that Jesus brings in Matthew. Our earthly relationships matter greatly to God. How we treat our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, friends and enemies matter more, in fact, than our personal piety and our gifts on the altar. Our righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, through fulfilling the whole law, the law that makes for a good neighborhood, and through love that follows not just the letter of the law but the spirit of it.
We must be in mature in Christ to live the “but I say” way, and we need Paul and Apollos, loving scrutiny, mutual accountability and the community of faith to plant and water so that God will give the growth.
- Take a look at other biblical texts that talk about anger: 1 John 3:15, James 1:19, Ephesians 4:26. How might these verses shape your understanding of and response to anger (yours and others)?
- Are the standards Jesus lays out in Matthew impossible to follow? If so, what’s the point? If not, how do we meet these requirements?
- How do we weigh individual concerns and needs in relationship to communal ones? Is there a balance? Are there times when the scales tip in one direction or another?
- Are there brothers or sisters you need to reconcile with before you go to the “altar” this week?
- Here is a link to some prayers written by Augustine. Read through a few and choose one to use in your devotions this week.
- Here is a link to some prayers written by Howard Thurman. Likewise, read through them and choose one or more to pray this week.
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