February 16, 2014
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)
Here we are toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses is delivering his third and final discourse on the plain before handing over the reins to his successor Joshua so that the Israelites may enter the Promised Land. These are Moses’ final instructions to the people he has guided and instructed through the wilderness for 40 years. He’s 120 years old! Yet by God’s command, he has to stay back while the people make way into their longed-for destination. Off to Mount Nebo he will soon to go. And onward the Israelites will march to cleanse and settle the land under the command of Joshua. They are on the verge of seeing the promises God made to Abraham so long ago come to fruition: a people who have a special relationship with God who have a homeland in which to live.
It would be easy to think that after all those years in the wilderness the job of forming the Israelites should be finished. Maybe from there it would be simple: Enter the Promised Land, see the Covenant blossom, eat that milk and honey and relax. Easy Street.
But that’s not what Moses explains. While the Wilderness was certainly a place of formation – of God and the people becoming acquainted – the Promised Land is the place to live out what God intends for Israel. That leaves the people in the precarious state of a choosing. Will they love God or will they abandon God, flaunt allegiances and worship like other people? In loving God will they follow God’s commands?
When have you stood at a place of passage and had to choose between God and gods?
Have you ever thought that living in the Promised Land – the Kingdom of God – might require more than just kicking back and relaxing?
How can the life of the baptized sometimes require the leaving behind of something beloved in order to grow more fully into the stature of Christ?
Do we, the church, sometime neglect our duty to continue forming people after they are baptized?
Happy. That’s an interesting little word to begin a psalm with. That little word begins the first of 176 verses of the longest psalm – Psalm 119.
Of course, we break this longest psalm up into digestible eight-verse sections based on the poetic use of the same first letter of the alphabet for each word of each verse in each eight-verse stanza. But it is really one psalm, with one story to tell.
So while today’s stanza is the first, because each verse begins its first word with the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, if we read from the beginning to the end of Psalm 119, we would find a few recurring words of greater importance: statute, commandment, judgment and decree.
Nevertheless, with ‘ashrei – “happy” – we start this psalm with two verses of increasing intensity regarding the perfect. Those people are indeed happy, their way is blameless, they walk in the Law of the Lord, they observe God’s decrees and seek God with all their hearts. But what are those commandments, decrees, statues and judgments? At first it might be easy, reading Psalm 119, to think that the focus is entirely on the law and its keeping. Yet what is more important still is seeking, is opening the intimate conversation in which God can help and teach.
How can we become more interested in what God wants for us than what we want for ourselves? How can we know what God wants?
What does it mean to allow the space to continue to learn what God wants for our lives?
When have you found that living into God’s will for you makes you happy? Have you found that to be where God’s will and yours intersect? Is this what it means to be called?
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
The Corinthians were apparently very contentious. They liked to fight among themselves about matters of faith and practice, and they apparently tended to divide on issues according to factions who sided with the teachings of this or that apostle. But the real issue for these Corinthians was not matters of faith or practice but maturity in Christ. They had become so caught-up in the differences and details that they missed the bigger picture – the one that showed them to be one Body in Christ.
Paul tells the Corinthians that the Christian life is like any human life – it must be born and nurtured from infancy to adulthood. The real work of care and support begins once a person is Christian, not before. That’s why the truths of the Faith must be given in easily digestible form to the neonates, while to those more progressed and mature deeper things can be revealed.
That’s where the Corinthians got jealous. It would be like asking: “Why has that baby begun to crawl at 6 months, and this one still can’t sit up?” Or “Why can that child read at 2 years and this one still can’t form sentences?” Maybe it’s what the parents have been feeding them – or maybe it’s all that Baby Mozart? Growth and development are tedious and tenuous. That’s what Paul says to the Corinthians. But a baby can’t walk before she crawls. And she can’t crawl before she sits up. And so is the Christian life.
Perhaps for show, perhaps for jealousy’s sake, the Corinthians had gotten ahead of themselves. Then, in his note to them, Paul tells them: You’ve missed the first two most important things. First, you are God’s, and God will fashion you in God’s time. Second, you are all God’s, and that means that you are equal to each other.
To quote a few verses ahead, “All [human leaders] belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (vv. 22-23).
What can you do to stay grounded in being God’s beloved child? And how can you open your eyes to see how your sisters and brothers in Christ are God’s children, too?
What types of distinctions and divisions do you find easy to dismiss? Which ones might be more convenient or comfortable for you?
Have you ever found yourself falling into the stance of being right?
Here we are in the tough spot of the Sermon on the Mount. Everyone likes the beginning, the Beatitudes: “You are the Salt” and “You are the Light.” But this part, beginning with Jesus saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (v. 17) and following through Chapter 5 with the “You-have-heard-it-said”s is much less congenial. Murder. Adultery. Swearing of Oaths. Restitution. Giving Alms. Love for enemies. Jesus hits all of the tough topics of ethics in the Kingdom of God.
And not only does he uphold the law and prophets, but he ups the ante. Matthew’s Jesus takes very seriously that “the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:7) and that “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for all the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). That vision of the Kingdom is only possible if the law is not only kept, but the very heart of things is transformed.
So, for Matthew’s Jesus, being angry with, insulting or disparaging another person is tantamount to killing them. Looking longingly, lustfully at another’s spouse or casting-off one’s own spouse for insignificant reasons is the same as adultery. Shirking responsibility by word-smithing and swearing grandiose oaths on ethereal collateral is downright evil. Jesus followers should offer more than quid pro quo when their adversaries demand restitution. Jesus followers should give to everyone who begs, and loan money to anyone who wants to borrow. And Jesus followers don’t just love those they like, they love and pray for even the people who hurt and oppose them.
The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel demands a lot of his followers. In your relationship with Jesus, have you found him to have requirements?
Is it possible to love Jesus or others, with responsibility to and for them?
What does it mean when people cannot live up to the ethics of the Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount?
How have you opened yourself to being transformed beyond the basic duty of Christianity?