Expanding Boundaries

Sunday, February 23
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Weekly Theme
Expanding Boundaries

O God most holy, in Jesus Christ you have laid a foundation upon which to build our lives. Help us to follow your perfect law of love, that we may fulfill it and observe it to the end. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Matthew 5:38-48

[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

All readings for this week
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Focus Questions

1. With whom do you identify in this story: the crowd, or the religiously observant leaders?

2. How much do you think Christians take seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies as a core teaching?

3. When have you experienced transformation because a person or community (or you yourself) went the extra mile of faithfulness?

4. When have you ever witnessed a “flower” crack the “rock” it inhabited? How might that look in our culture?

5. How do you respond to the notion of a “reptilian brain” determining our responses?

Reflection by Mark J. Suriano

We have been sitting up on this mountain with Jesus for a number of Sundays now, listening to the teachings of this rabbi Jesus, and now this season of Epiphany is coming to a close. What started at Jesus’ baptism by John out there in the wilderness is now solidly situated on the side of a hill, where the New Moses is interpreting the Law for a new group of exiles.

Jason Byassee comments that Jesus here is “at his ornery best offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one that is giving it.” As with much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is waking up a generation of people for whom the Law–now so associated with the powerful who are guardians of its precise following–only presents itself as a burden and obligation. The leaders of Israel, at least the ones we bump into in the Gospels, have become disconnected from God and the people, but Jesus speaks of these obligations from a personal place, offering for all who hear a reinterpretation that brings life rather than death.

In doing so, Jesus is not criticizing the contemporary interpretation as wrong, but as incomplete. It does not go far enough and cannot bring people into a transformational relationship with the God of Sinai. As Greg Carey reminds us, “These sayings emphasize doing what Jesus says…the thesis insists upon righteous conduct, including Torah observance, that exceeds even that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.” All along in this sermon, the Scribes and Pharisees have been within earshot of Jesus. They have been listening in to the teachings he presents, and we can only imagine that what he says is geared towards them as much as anyone else. Jesus is not openly critical of the prescriptions of the Law or its application (it is in Matthew’s Gospel after all that Jesus claims to have come to fulfill the Law), but he is calling for a deeper and more radical way of following.

The familiar “you have heard it said /but I say to you” device begs the listeners to pay attention as Jesus deepens both the meaning of the Law and the obligation of the hearers. In many ways, “an eye for an eye” and “love your neighbors and hate your enemies” are more appealing to our sensibilities and our need for a swift, concise, sense of justice. Jesus’ admonitions are equally clear but infinitely more difficult to follow, since the obligation lies not in retribution against another but in requiring more from the self and from the redeemed community he is gathering.

Many years ago, the writer Calvin Miller wrote a series of books that were analogies to the Gospels and New Testament writings. These books, The Singer, The Song, and The Finale, reframe the story in such a way that we are drawn into the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders as if it were a battle between beauty and ugliness. At one point, a chapter begins with the simple statement, “The only thing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is good for is creating an eyeless, toothless world.” In many ways this passage from Matthew’s Gospel reflects that tension. Is it more important to seek retribution or to meet evil with good? Does the ancient Covenant simply render judgment on the dealings of people with each other, or create among us the possibility of true community?

In her book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong begins by writing about our “reptilian brain,” the one that is still present underneath the more developed brain. The “reptilian brain” is responsible for the fight/flight response in animals and the need for revenge and retribution. It is a necessary part of life when danger is near and a quick response is necessary, but it is not attuned to living in societies nor, one might say, for the life of faith. In that sense, Jesus is inviting the crowds to consider embracing a life that is in many ways counter to our very basest instincts for survival. He is outpacing our reptilian brain with a call to the highest and best within us, to raise our sights and join him in creating a more compassionate world, and to create among us a true community of respect based on self-giving.

A new community in the midst of an old one

Like Moses leading the Hebrews from the slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Jesus is creating the first signs of a new community in the midst of the old one. The old order created communities that were fractured, divided between the righteous (the Law abiding) and the unrighteous (those who failed in the observances of the Law), with the powerful elites being the ones to determine the difference. As Ronald J. Allen reminds us, “The realm of God creates a community of peoples who have been separated and alienated. Love of the enemy prefigures this restored community in the midst of the fractious communities of the old order.” As Jesus teaches, the beginnings of a new order are sown, a new order that does not simply make the weak strong and the strong weak, but one that will transform the nature of community by the example he will set as well as by the words he preaches. The strength of this passage lies in the knowledge of how the whole enterprise turns out. Jesus’ inexorable march to Jerusalem would punctuate his teachings with an example so convincing that later generations would know that he was more than a person who spoke well, he was a person who lived what he preached.

If this new order, this new community, is being sown in the midst of the old order, what might that mean for our life as a people of faith in our own day? We can certainly see the effects of the old order around us: poverty is still rampant, people still settle disputes with fists and firearms, nations still conquer nations, people still think with their “reptilian brains” and seem intent on creating a world of fragmentation. Some among the Christian faithful understand faith as something that keeps us until the world ends, but what about those of us who understand faith as a daily walk in the world? Some among us live in communities that are hotbeds of fear and violence: what if our communities were hothouses for the seeds of this new order? We could, in our worship, pray vehemently for the passing of the old order and quietly live our lives the rest of the week, or we could pray vehemently for the passing of the old order and plant the seeds of the new by the living of our lives the rest of the week as Jesus preaches in the Gospel today.

Blooming in hostile places

Several years ago I took a vacation in western North Carolina. As part of the vacation, we took a drive up to the highest point in the mountains, where (of course) the park system had installed a visitors center. Just off the visitors center was a swing bridge over a canyon that led to a rocky outcrop where, much to my horror, people were standing with their toes against the edge of a sheer drop off to the distant valley below. I chose not to walk across the bridge (too high up) and would certainly never stand on the edge of that cliff (my vertigo would have done me in, I am sure) so I stayed on the path. As my family went over, I began to look around the vegetation on this rocky mountaintop and noticed a purple flower blooming there, in a place where there was no soil and where the conditions could be windy and dry. This little beauty came right out of the rock and I was taken by it.

Once my family returned, we went back to the visitor center where I asked about that flower. The ranger told me that the seeds are blown by the wind and deposit themselves in the tiniest of crevasses, and that the plants have adapted to flourishing in a landscape that is at times hostile. Eventually, he said, the plant itself could crack the rock, or the boulder, in which it grew; it would just take time and persistence. How like that flower are the seeds of the new order that Jesus announces today, inviting us to lives of transformational living even in the midst of the old ways of living. As communities of faith, we might just find ourselves taking small but important steps to overturning the ways of alienation and separation, by practicing the kind of faith Jesus talks of in a hostile and unforgiving world. Sooner or later, we may just find that we have begun to shatter the old order, or at least open some well-placed cracks in it, so that the new order Jesus preached could begin.

“Perfect” as “whole” and “complete”

The final sentences of the passage have also caused some confusion. The directive to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” has caused some a good deal of anxiety as they drive toward perfection, as they would imagine God to be perfect. In our hectic, ego-driven world, this directive can become a spiritual legitimation for all sorts of Type A activity, from physical beauty and intellectual acumen, to spiritual heroics of all kinds. However, as Fred Craddock observes, “‘Perfect’ can also be translated ‘complete’ or ‘mature.’ It is not here referring to moral flawlessness but to love that is not partial or immature.” To be perfect is to love in the way God loves, to practice the way of compassion and giving as God has demonstrated it to us in Jesus. Because this perfection has to do with love, which is self-giving, it is geared toward the other, and has little to do with our concepts of perfection. In fact, the perfect life might just be seen as the life of love for God, for self, and for others (which of course, are the two gospel commandments) that takes us out of our nervous self-concern into relationships within community. In fact, “the root meaning of the word ‘perfect’ is undivided, whole, complete,” Ronald J. Allen writes, and “it means perfection in the sense of treating people in the same way that God treats people in the divine realm.” Following the teaching of Jesus, then, leads to wholeness and completeness in all aspects of life and in all people not by focusing on the self but on my living and loving the other.

Note: It is important to mention that we must also face the fact that we find ourselves wrestling with a Christian history that has turned these sayings into a justification for docility and obedience. Many people of color, women, persons of various sexual orientations, and the poor have found themselves at the blunt end of the powers that be that have used Jesus’ words as a way to control and manipulate. For these and others, the words of Jesus can present themselves as a problem, as Barbara Essex reminds us: “Some of us are too suspicious of the outcome and may resist living the values of God’s realm. We are more intent on making sure that no one has the chance to abuse or tyrannize us again.” There may be those in our communities for whom the exercise of self-giving has been forced and has led to abuse or manipulation by others, as mentioned above or in many daily ways (spousal abuse, for example). These are situations that Jesus is not envisioning here.: the exercise of self-giving, and of “going the extra mile,” are meant to be liberating and not enslaving.

The Rev. Mark J. Suriano is pastor of Old South Church United Church of Christ in Kirtland, Ohio.

For a preaching version of this reflection (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/february-23-2014.html#Lectionary.

For further reflection

Simone Weil, 20th century
“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?'”

Chinese proverb
“He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.”

St. John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.”

Winston Churchill, 20th century
“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.”

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to reprint this resource and use in your congregation’s Bible-study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a resource provided by Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.