Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 16, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalm 119:1-8 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-37

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount comes from the heart of Jesus’ message, from what distinguishes Jesus from the previous members of the prophetic tradition in which he stood. That is exactly the way the message is formulated. “It has been said” and “I say.” Last week we saw that for Jesus this was not setting aside the law and the prophets but fulfilling them. It was not reducing the heavy demands of the law but intensifying them.

Jesus and the early Christians were closer to the Pharisees than to any other group in Israel. Just for that reason, the debate was sharpest with them. Sadly, this has left among Christians a very unfair picture of the “Pharisee.” For example, in modern parlance, to be “pharisaic” is to be hypocritical, to put on a good front without actual goodness behind it. It is to emphasize minor rules while ignoring the greater issues.

These were the charges against the Pharisees of Jesus and his followers. The charges had some validity from the perspective of the new movement. The careful obedience to the law that Pharisees cultivated did not deal much with inner motivation. It was mainly about behavior. Also, if righteousness consists in obedience to law, the question of the relative importance of laws may not be highlighted. This was a discussion among the Pharisees themselves, with some agreeing with Jesus and his followers that all other laws were subordinated to the two great love commandments. In any case, Christians typically miss the point that the Pharisees are held up by Jesus as the most righteous of Jews. It is his call to go beyond that righteousness that puts those who would be his disciples in a new position.

Let us consider briefly what is presented here as the change.  The first example is the shift from forbidding killing to forbidding the anger that might motivate it. Jesus goes on to condemn other expressions of anger and in general hurtful relationships. He seems to assume that one can achieve reconciliation with anyone. In this respect, as in the total avoidance of anger, he seems to hold up an impossible ideal.

The next paragraph in a similar way moves from adultery to lust. It then seems to generalize to any desire for what one should not take. Taken straightforwardly it too holds up an ideal that runs sharply against the natural feelings of most people. This is followed by the strict prohibition of divorce. I suspect that even the exception in the case of a wife’s unfaithfulness, was not part of what Jesus said. It does not fit with the wild overstatement that characterizes these paragraphs.

We have seen how, from this perspective, Jesus’ followers criticized Pharisees. But it should be apparent that the Pharisees would find this sort of teaching unacceptable. To make demands that cannot be obeyed makes no sense. It destroys the whole notion of a righteousness based on obedience to law.

Indeed, this objection is quite accurate. If the ideal is freedom from anger, covetousness, and lust and total reconciliation with all enemies, making laws and obeying them are irrelevant.  Jesus calls for an inwardly transformed person, not for an outwardly obedient one. Christians who take this seriously are likely to think of themselves as slaves of sin, at least until they are saved by grace. The accent is in danger of shifting from moral responsibility to total dependence on God for forgiveness.

It is interesting that while Islam arose out of the same Jewish literature as Christianity, and Islam has a very high view of Jesus, it adopted the Jewish view of righteousness rather than the Christian one. Actually, during the course of history, many members of Christian churches have done so also. For others, there is an ongoing struggle to find a way to be a true disciple of Jesus and to take these teachings seriously without giving up individual responsibility or surrendering to a new and damaging legalism.

This new understanding of righteousness has forced Christians to engage in “theology” in a sense that is not part of Judaism or Islam. For them the demand for righteousness is straightforward. Christians are driven into introspection by the rightness of an ideal they cannot fulfill. This situation raises the question of responsibility and grace, of grace as forgiveness and grace as transforming, of grace as universal and of grace as Christocentric. The abandonment of theology is the abandonment also of what is distinctively Christian.

After being plunged into this morass we may find relief in returning to the simpler view expressed in the two passages from the Christian Old Testament. These express the view that God has placed us in the world and told us how to live. In Psalm 119 we read: “Blessed are those . . . who walk in the law of the Lord.” In Deuteronomy we read that there is a great choice: the way of life or the way of death. The way of life is to follow the commandments of God. There is no question whether the people can choose rightly. The only question is whether they will. So simple and so utterly important!

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we see the consequence of the complications introduced by Jesus. Paul cannot set before the Corinthians a simple moral choice. There is a sharp distinction between “spirit” and “flesh” but that is a more complicated matter. The distinction is not between virtue and vice, but between two modes of being. Choice is involved, but becoming spiritual is the work, not of the will, but of the spirit.

Paul recognizes that he had not really explained it. He could not speak to the Corinthians as spiritual people. Now he finds that they are divided into factions according to which teacher they claim.  They thereby show that they are still living in the flesh. If they had matured in the spirit they would understand that they owed their place in the new community to God and not to one human teacher or another.

Paul is often contrasted with Jesus. Certainly he sets up the understanding of faithfulness to Jesus in language that differs from that of Jesus. But the connection is deep. The life for which Jesus calls transcends morality. It has consequences for behavior but it requires inner transformation. This is not something individuals can simply choose to do. It is the work of the Spirit of God. Paul was sure that Spirit had begun its work in Corinth, but he saw how strong a hold the flesh still had. His theology developed through his life experience as a missionary of the good news that a new possibility had come into the world.