Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – February 23, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Psalm 119:33-40 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

This Sunday’s readings provide a basis for deep reflection about the difference between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews the Torah is central. It may be paired with the prophets because to a large extent its teachings implement the prophetic call for justice. Today’s reading from Leviticus is a beautiful example. It spells out quite specifically how to implement justice. It is clear that employers then and now are tempted to take advantage of the powerlessness of those who work for them by delaying payment of wages. Honesty and straightforwardness in business dealings are mandated, as is impartiality in courts of law. In particular, if one takes an oath in the name of God, one must honor it.

The requirements go beyond these simple moral teachings. The prophets called for concern for the poor. One way the poor could be aided was by incomplete harvesting. Obviously the farmer will harvest the main body of the crop, but he will not send his workers back into the field to get what was missed. Instead that is left for the poor and the sojourner.

There are also teachings about dealing with relatives and neighbors. These are designed to maintain a healthy community. This is not merely a matter of outward action but also of inner feeling. “You shall love the neighbor as yourself.” You must avoid bearing grudges and, of course, hating.

These are indeed admirable teachings. Furthermore, what is called for can be done. The outward actions are obviously possible. To avoid grudges and hatred, talking directly with the one who may be inspiring hostile feelings is called for. The focus is still not of the tone of feeling but avoiding feelings or attitudes that lead to destructive actions. This is practicable. It is a recipe for good living individually and collectively.

When one understands how the Torah functions, one can also understand the depth of love it inspires in the Psalmist. When these rules and principles are violated, community falls apart. When they are observed, community flourishes. They are worthy of careful study and full obedience. They are the way of life.

One can also understand how Jews have believed that those who obey the law prosper. Obedience to this law makes for healthy community and those who obey are respected and appreciated by others. This love of the law is not “legalism” in the negative sense in which Christians often use the term. Of course, as new issues arise and people seek guidance in dealing with them, the laws may become more complex and detailed, and some may be inappropriately applied.  What was called for originally for the sake of human beings and their communities may actually have negative consequences. Successful detailed obedience may become a source of feeling superior to others. Judaism is not free of problems. It contains ongoing discussion of how to deal with these problems.

When we turn back to Jesus “Sermon on the Mount” we find one Jew’s response to these problems. This response is a game-changer. For Christians it opens new spiritual doors. Jewish critics see that these doors too often lead to excesses of various kinds and to the loss of realistic guidance for ordinary life.

Consider the climactic demand of Jesus. Be like God! That is, “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In the presence of such a demand, all reasonable rules crumble. Of course, the perfection to which we are called is not perfect knowledge or perfect power. In the context, it is clearly “perfect love,” and the chief point is that, as God loves all people, we too should love everyone, even those who treat us hatefully.

Some Christians have talked about “counsels of perfection” as important in making us aware of our inability to be righteous. They make clear that we have no virtue in which we can take pride, that we are wholly dependent on grace. All of that surely has its truth. But it is probable that Jesus was calling for this kind of love quite straightforwardly. He demonstrated it on the cross when he asked God’s forgiveness of his crucifiers. In the past century it has guided reformers such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Through the years Quakers have often taken these “counsels of perfection” quite seriously and literally.

Wesley did so as well. He believed that God gave a second great blessing to some who sought it. In that way they attained perfect love. His teaching of this possibility has been a serious problem in the Wesleyan tradition.

My judgment is that we should understand Jesus’ point in the context of this passage. The focus here is not on some exceptional purity of loving feeling, but on extending to enemies the love required already in relation to neighbors. I would translate this as overcoming the deep-seated feeling of us and them, the “we-they” distinction. “We” and “they” are all loved by God. Yet human beings grow up inevitably with distinctions between their groups and others. The Jewish law emphasized love of those in one’s own community. It did not teach hatred of others, but it assumed a clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles and expected a difference in the way Jews related to the in-group and the out-group. Jesus called for obliterating that distinction.

If we study Christian history, we are forced to wonder whether that is possible on any large scale. Christianity changed the “we” and the “they.” Jews and Gentiles were no longer separated. But the distinction between “believers” and “unbelievers” functioned in much the same way. Indeed, Christian history can be used to show that the Christian record of treatment of the “others” may be the worst of any major movement.

Do the crimes of the followers invalidate the teaching of the master? I think not. Indeed, I think Jesus’ message is needed in today’s world as never before. But the facts of history certainly should undercut any disparagement of Jews for having refused to take Jesus as their master and teacher.  

The Corinthian passage reminds us that it is not only in relation to “unbelievers” that Christians have acted in very unloving ways. All too often they have failed to love each other. Paul was distressed by the attitudes of Corinthian Christians to one another. Through much of Christian history the Eastern and Western church have treated each other with contempt and hostility. Within the West, Catholics and Protestants have followed suit. Within Protestantism, liberals and fundamentalists clearly treat one another with something less than love. The command to be perfect as God is perfect is a lure to which we should pay far more attention.