In concluding his roughly 15,600-word farewell discourse, MOSES finally distills his wisdom to the clear choice and invitation that summons us each morning: LISTEN, LOOK, SEE: LIFE calls. WALK, oh WALK with God in God’s ways and you will live to future generations.
If not, only death awaits.
In the time I spent recently with today’s readings, particularly the Gospel, I was seeking that life. This morning I’m happy to share with you what I encountered.
Today’s reading from Matthew appears soon after the Beatitudes, with the Salt and Light teaching as transition. One commentator described the Beatitudes as Jesus saying: “I see you; I see you who are powerless, you who suffer for righteousness, you who show mercy.”
Today’s verses seem to shift the tone of those tender-sounding lines and may fall a bit harshly on our 21st century ears. But what if today’s are the punchlines?
For surely nothing in Jesus’ teaching or ministry idealized poverty, abuse, or suffering. He railed against the oppression and marginalization of those who suffered. I don’t believe that Jesus wanted his followers to be persecuted for sharing in his ministry. He came to bring Life!
In Matthew’s 5th chapter Jesus first lifts up those who suffer as blessed, even happy;
then he calls on his followers to be the salt and light that inaugurate the new creation;
And in today’s passage he delineates the systemic changes required in the reign of God. The Good News is for everyone, including women, and all who are now powerless.
Scholars have long agreed that most of the community of Matthew was Jewish, observant of Jewish practice and followers of Jesus.
This faith circle heard Jesus’ teaching as intensifying, not obliterating the law of Moses. Thus, in each of Jesus’ sayings in this passage, he is described as ‘upping the ante’ of the laws demands.
These converts were taking great risk to follow Jesus: think about how he criticized the local scribes and Pharisees as blasphemers!
Drawn to him, they struggled to maintain familial and community ties to their tradition. To them Matthew describes Jesus as exhorting them to be “more observant” than their Jewish leaders.
As his disciples, these new believers are to go beyond the letter of the Mosaic law. They were to be completely at the service of one another, thus bearing witness to the imminent reign of God.
“Don’t kill”? Not enough. “Don’t even be angry with your neighbor; don’t so much as tarnish his name.”
In fact, a man’s reputation in first century Judaism was so integral to his life that Lashon hara or evil tongue, was a serious sin. Even if whatever was spoken about someone was true, it wasn’t to be used against him.
Judaic law strongly forbids gossip in any form: face-to-face conversation, letter, phone call, email, even body language. In the Babylonian Talmud, verbal shaming was as serious as murder.
Maybe our whole society needs a day set apart to reflect on the power of our words. We could ask Sister Paz to lead our little group in the practice of nonviolent communication.
Moses’ timeless choice demands that we who choose life keep moving, learning, and evolving. Walking requires forward movement. We are to accompany God in the companionship of all who seek life and future over complacency and death.
As for being angry, we followers are called to do the hard work of digging out when emotionally stuck, and rebuilding relationships wherever possible.
I think we all have seen how long-term grudges can destroy relationships, health, families. I know I have, on both sides of anger’s immense force. And it’s poisonous. Anger stunts our relations with one another, and our capacity to come to this table and experience the grace made possible by Jesus’ gift of himself.
“No adultery?” Listen to what Jesus said, confronting patriarchy 2000 years ago: “Stop looking lewdly at women and objectifying them; you sin in doing so.”
“Stop divorcing women at your caprice and forcing them to take up with another man simply to survive!” he shouted.
In that world only men got decrees of divorce, and a tasteless or burnt meal was all it might take. How would a rejected woman, slandered, survive?
Certainly not more easily than women and children trafficked, undocumented, abused and/or homeless here and throughout the land of the free.
I love the Gospel of John for how it includes and uplifts women. I admit I hadn’t really seen how Matthew’s Jesus calls for the dismantling of a patriarchy that keeps women vulnerable.
In God’s home, right relationship is the house rule. We have a long walk ahead, to accompany the many vulnerable and outcast into fullness of life!
Read this way, I don’t see Matthew’s Jesus as tightening the screws on the laws of the Torah. I think he’s inviting his courageous followers to imagine what life might look like in a new creation. A world in which people purposefully and whole heartedly Walk Together in God’s ways.
I encourage you to read Matthew’s short but punchy 5th chapter as a piece. Spoiler alert: it concludes with the greatest of all Jesus’ challenges: that we love our enemies, those who hate us, those who do harm.
In our nation at this moment, religious posturing pits Parties, families, churches and movements against one another. We need to sink into our roots, and this may be a good place to begin.
It is possible that the current chaos may also be a fertile moment for witnessing to our faith in ways we haven’t yet discovered. May it be so.
These weeks as Sunday Assembly we are sharing how we feel summoned by our call. I pray that we proceed with joy and eagerness to chart a direction with room and roles for all.
We are planters and waterers (weeders), children and young adults, mature and aging, women and men in all our gendered variety; we are single, partnered, widowed, married and celibate.
Let all of us take strength from this bread broken and cup shared;
Strength to walk as companions for the growth of our community – and our salty witness to the world.
Let us pray:
For growth in love and in numbers of the Benedictine Women here in Madison and throughout the world; and for this worshipping community as we clarify our mission and welcome newcomers, let us pray.
For freedom from the anger and fear that poisons our national politics, let us pray.
For growth in respect, understanding, and common purpose among Christian denominations, followers of Judaism, Islam, and other faiths with whom we share many values – and this one planet, we pray.
For what else?