Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
As a big brother, seven years older than my little sister, I was just at the right age when she was in her preschool years to find it incumbent on myself to be a bit of a pain. One way I found that worked very well was the tried and true method of ‘got your nose’. The one where you put the tip of your thumb between two fingers and act as if you’re ripping off the nose of another person, then proudly displaying it to them. Even though I’m sure my little sister had experienced this before from my grandfather or someone else, when I did it, it was followed by screams of terror and pleas for the nose to be returned. Of course, as the big brother, it was my job to refuse. On second thought perhaps I should call her this afternoon and make sure there isn’t any lasting trauma.
I suppose I got to thinking about that as I contemplated the words of Jesus this week, about his teaching to his followers to cut off or take out the parts of the body that cause them to sin. We hear Jesus’ teachings today, in short succession on several topics. Unfortunately, because of when Candlemas fell, we didn’t get to hear what starts this several Sunday set of readings, the beatitudes. Jesus begins all of this by teaching his followers who is blessed in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. […] Blessed are the meek.” Etc. Jesus is turning the values of the world on its head and showing a new way, a Kingdom way for those that would be bold enough to answer God’s call. Then he moves into the comparison of salt and light that we heard last week.
So then we come to the rapid fire succession of teachings we hear today. I’m going to tell you something that might seem a little presumptuous. When you take the readings we heard today in the context of everything that surrounds it in the Gospel of Matthew, I believe it is clear that Jesus turns the dial up on the standard of Sin to a ridiculous level, a level he knows no one can reach to exemplify instead the nature of salvation.
Jesus starts with murder, but then he says really even anger is too much. You have to seek reconciliation instead. In all fairness, that’s not a bad idea, and we even have poetic use of this particular passage in our Anglican tradition. From the earliest prayerbooks, there were exhortations and warnings about communion and taking it in an unworthy manner. Much like Jesus says here if you remember something that is clouding your relationship with another person, you need to ensure your heart is reconciled before offering your sacrifice.
On page 316, our modern exhortation reminds us, “If we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup. For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.
Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.”
Then Jesus goes really far, telling his followers that even THINKING about a sin, lust in this case, is as bad as committing it. If you have a part of your body that causes you to sin, then you should cut it off. But we know, I certainly hope, that this isn’t meant to be taken literally. Otherwise our congregations would look more like pirate crews with eye patches and prosthetic limbs! We know that this is overstating the point because frankly, you’re going to run out of things to cut out of yourself. It must be acknowledged that as humans we are sinful creatures, even when we are trying to do our best. Jesus knows that you could never cut off and take out everything inside of you that causes you to sin.
Jesus takes away even the things that are allowed under the law of Moses…now he says if you get divorced it’s a sin. This is something that would go against the teachings of the religious tradition at the time. I tend to think that Jesus once again knows the complicated and broken nature of the human heart, and so here again is trying to make a point. All of this portion, from the thoughts that are sin, to the amputations from sin, to the things that these people would have been told was permissible, Jesus turns raises the stakes on all of it and highlights our broken human condition.
So I suppose the question is, “why?” Why would Jesus make it harder for us to live, why would he point out all our flaws and raise the bar higher than we can reach? There is one simple answer to that question. The bar gets raised out of our grasp because we weren’t ever going to get to it anyway. Jesus raises the bar far too high to teach us that once again, our salvation is not of our own doing, and nothing we do to try and live a holier life will ever get us to a perfect point. Jesus does that for us. His sacrifice, his saving action is what takes all of this away. It is the moment that fulfills the Law that God has given to his people, fulfills the promise of salvation, and ultimately justifies us in the presence of the most High.
That is not to say that you should just go ahead and run amok in this world. We are still charged with striving to do good, to follow Christ’s example, to live reaching for that bar. But we should also never be anxious that we can’t reach it. Jesus spans the distance for us, taking on everything we are unable to do for ourselves in relation to our sin. Our work is to show the world, as best as we are able, what the kingdom of God could look like. All the while, we live in the sure and certain hope of our Savior’s resurrection and the time when all things will be made whole once again.