Sunday, February 13, 2011

Custom and Consequence

Custom and Consequence

Robert J. Elder

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time: February 13, 2011

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-24

5:21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

In the second part of Matthew 5, Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a familiar rhetorical device in his teaching, going back and forth between “You have heard it said...” and “...but I say to you.... We know the rhythm of it; it goes, “You have heard it said...” and there follows some bit of proverbial wisdom that would have been familiar to his listeners, like “an eye for an eye;” then he continues,“but I say to you...” and here is where he applies the customary understanding with such unaccustomed strictness that everyone winds up convicted. “You have heard it said ... 'you shall not murder (that) whoever murders shall be liable to judgment...'” Then comes the harder truth, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

It is a striking raising of the stakes, isn't it? You have heard it said “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but I say to you, unless you eat a shipping container full of apples, the doctor will be called in shortly.”

When Jesus says “You have heard it said,” he is referring to some piece of generally acceptable ethical wisdom which had its foundation in the law of the Old Testament. When he goes over to the “But I say to you” part, we may be sure that he is announcing a new vision of what those old ethics have come to mean for our understanding of the character of God, the character of the Christian community, and - probably last of all - our own character as individual believers.

See how it works? Customary ethical wisdom has consequences. Customarily we expect many things about our lives, and generally speaking, we anticipate familiar consequences. Yet the customary things have deep roots which we sometimes miss, a stricter application which could enrich us immeasurably if only we could see it. Jesus helps us see. And it was to this deeper level of meaning in the customary laws of Israel that Jesus pointed so skillfully each time he continued with “…but I say to you…”

At this point in my ministry with you here at First Presbyterian, some of you have become familiar with my three-part refrain at times when we are speaking together and you may happen to mention a third person not present with whom you are disappointed or angry, or whom you think needs to be set straight in some way. If you are not familiar with my usual response, I am happy to tell you how it goes and you can be prepared for it if the need arises.

  1. If Mr. McGillicutty says to me, “Pastor, I have to tell you, I am unhappy with the way Mrs. Finkelfern always parks crooked in the parking lot,” I will respond to you, if I have my thinking cap on, “Have you spoken with Mrs. Finkelfern about your concern?”
  2. And if McGillicutty says 'no' but adds some reason he is hesitant to speak to her directly, I will then say, “Would you like me to go with you some time so you can speak with Mrs. Finkelfern about this?”
  3. If McGillicutty declines, I may offer a third option, “Well, I could speak with Mrs. Finkelfern about your concern, but I would be sure to tell her that it is your concern and not mine, would that be alright? Direct communication is always the best way to get to the root of a problem.” If the answer is still no, I have to say, “Well, then I wish I could help you but I can't. But I do wish you well.

Students of human behavior call Mr. McGillicutty's approach and invitation to me to talk about a person not present triangulation, a term with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Our lives are filled with triangles, any time we speak with someone about a third person not present. It's easy to see how easily a casual such conversation can take a wrong turn. I believe that was part of Jesus' motivation on behalf of the emerging community of faith when he told them that carrying around unresolved anger about a third party not present could having literally damning results.

The “but I say to you” portion of Jesus' teaching leads him to place a figurative hand on our shoulders and to say to us, “…for the sake of love and especially for the sake of the health of the church community that continues my ministry, think on this teaching: Forget murder; if you are even angry with your brother or sister, or call them a fool behind their back, you are liable to the hell of fire!”

Think of it this way: The lens we need to use to understand Jesus' words is the lens that understands what community really is. His words aren't addressed to individuals but to a fellowship. Matthew was addressing his gospel about Jesus to a struggling community of believers who were sorting out their lives of faith together. We need to reflect constantly, what does it mean to be a community of Christ? How should we live? Then think of Jesus' statements as remembered instructions to disciples who one day shared them as a way to keep relationships alive and vital in the rough and tumble life of communities of believers from that time to this. His instructions concerning our anger and other shortcomings in community are meant to tell us about the character of God first, secondly the way that character should be reflected in the life of the community that follows Christ, and only lastly our own character. The Sermon on the Mount was intended as instruction for community building even more than individual character-building.

You have heard it said that you shall not murder, but I say to you, the God who loves you has refrained from acting out his anger, and the community to which you belong should aim for that higher righteousness. What community of faith can survive if its members are riven with anger, refuse to speak directly with one another in love, refuse correction offered in love?

Jesus said that even if we are present at the altar with our gift, ready to hand it over to the priest, and entirely without our meaning to do so, we remember some hurt that we have caused to, or received from, a brother or sister in faith, we should stop the ritual and go be reconciled. Why? Sure that spoils the whole religious service, but reconciliation is more important than religious observances because trust and relationship within the community of faith are of paramount importance, more important even than appropriate sacramental observance.

Jesus declares that there is no obligation more important, no duty more solemn than reconciliation between Christian brothers and sisters. That is what builds community. All sacraments, all prayer, all religious observance flow from a community which is the body of Christ, and are not optional attachments onto the body, whether that body is broken or not. Nothing is more important than peace among brothers and sisters. Nothing.

Years ago, when my daughters were still small, I read them a children's story about a koala bear in a magazine called Your Big Back Yard. This koala and his mother were peacefully moving from one tree to another one day when they were spotted by two men who thought they would make good pets for their children. The little koala was riding along on his mother's back, and the two men snatched them and put them into a burlap bag to take home.

A little later a ranger asked them if they had seen the two koalas, since his count was short by two. The men said that, yes, they had captured them and planned to take them home to their children for pets. To make a long story short, the ranger helped them see the wisdom of leaving the koalas out in the wilderness where they belong, since there would be no adequate means of feeding or caring for them at the men's homes.

Several hours had obviously passed during the course of the story, but when the men opened the sack to let the little koala and his mother go free, the little one was still holding fast to the fur on his mother's back. In all that time, he had not let go.

In the Old Testament, Moses once put a choice before Israel.* God set before them blessing and curse, life and death. Moses urged them to choose life. And he told them that the way to choose life is - as a community of God's Chosen People - to love God, obey God, and hold fast to God; just what that little koala bear was doing in relation to his mother in the dark recesses of the burlap bag. In his little marsupial mind, he knew that no matter how how bleak things looked, they could only look bleaker without her. And similarly, we may know in our life together as a community of Christ's beloved people, that there is no lost place, no dark bottom of a burlap bag that is beyond the reach of God's love and care. God will make of us the community that our own solitary efforts cannot. Praise be to God who gives us this life-giving gift of his church.


* Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Copyright © Robert J. Elder, 2011