Saturday, 12 February 2011

Starting small

Gospel Matthew 5:17-37

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.
‘For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court; if a man calls his brother “Fool” he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.

‘You have learnt how it was said: You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.

‘It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

‘Again, you have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not break your oath, but must fulfil your oaths to the Lord. But I say this to you: do not swear at all, either by heaven, since that is God’s throne; or by the earth, since that is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, since that is the city of the great king. Do not swear by your own head either, since you cannot turn a single hair white or black. All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

The word that is translated here as 'Law' – actually means something more like ‘instruction’. The Law that is the Ten Commandments, has required much consideration; much translation and much discernment by teachers and prophets over the years; wondering if God really did mean 'this' or 'that' when they were given over. All this  resulting in the development of over 600 rules and guidelines – 600 instructions - about how to follow the Ten.

Unfortunately, it seems that, as each Commandment is broken down into its multiple characteristics; the essence of what is being commanded becomes more and more vague.

The beauty of a vague Commandment is that it is so much easier to work your way around. And as the police would probably make the best burglars; so those that study the Law know best how to find their way around it. Something Matthew struggles with time and time again because the Law was not made to be ‘found a way around’- particularly when much of the way around involves influence or exclusion-  Jesus reminds us of this – driving away that persistent demon ‘But’.

Jesus understands that circumstances run away with us; that we didn’t mean this or that and yet; here we are;  the more choice we get the harder it gets to make a choice; the more twists and turns the easier to get lost.

Jesus challenges us to a simpler, less intellectual but more honest understanding – ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

We may happily say ‘no’ to a major sin like murder or grand theft; of course we would but, then again, we will very rarely be confronted with the circumstance or opportunity to carry them out. And those that do, usually don’t get there in one giant leap.

I remember getting very funny looks some time ago when I told someone that that the way to get well-behaved children was to treat them like animals! At the time I didn't have children but I had had a lot of animals. I had quickly learnt that whatever I didn't want my pets to do when they were big - I didn't let them do when they small. The various supernanny programmes seem to support this now - not so funny after all. 

It is a simplistic view for the complex creature that is a human being but it still works pretty well at the 'child' stage.

That is how we often find ourselves on the slippery slope' the child in us starts small -little things - avoidances, resentments, desires - that aren't particularly bad; quite tame really - but then we get used to them and up them a notch and then a notch more until it's surprising that - what we find acceptable - is simply not acceptable.

After that it is all about pride- the inability to admit that your thoughts; your deeds; your feelings are out of your control and so ask for help.  The pride that, not only won't allow you to apologise but will not accept apology from others. The pride that believes that it is never at fault whilst there is someone else to blame.

 Jesus chooses to reminds us that everything starts somewhere; even sin. His advice is don’t start small; don’t start at all but you if you do, when you do - give it back.



Anonymous said...

I love your last line...'when you do, give it back'. Oh how we love to complicate and over analyze things. Your post explains it well, Word. I think it is as simple as...'love God and do what you will' - thank you St. Augustine.

Word in the Hand said...

I think it is Andie, but we do indeed love to complicate life, and then try to simplify it all over again.

Anonymous said...

I always feel this is a very hard gospel and find myself asking did Jesus really say that.Especially the bit on divorce.

Word in the Hand said...

It is a hard gospel and that bit does seem an add in especially as it doesn't refer to the lesser evil as the others sections do. Alternatively Jesus could have been saying (and remember this applies to the culture that was then not now) you can't just divorce your wife because you feel like it (which they could) - you can't treat your wife like a possession (which they could)she is not to be passed around - she is a human being. Most of this Gospel is about realising that the object of your envy,lust,anger is not an object.
I don't believe Jesus ever wants anyone to live in an unacceptable relationship. Where would the love be then?

claire said...

if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first...
I have often wondered how many people would come to the altar if we truly followed that suggestion, since brother (or sister) encompasses pretty much anyone we know :-)

A good post, mairie. Thank you!

Word in the Hand said...

I was told about a church on an apache reservation where hardly anyone would receive the eucharist because of this. One day the priest made them all sit down in church and talk until the issues where sorted out - and then everyone received - may be a 'religious' urban myth - but how wonderful would that have been?