THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew: 5:38-48

Leviticus can be seen as commentary on the most basic of God’s commands to God’s people. The “Ten Commandments” of biblical and movie lore. Then we hear a part of a sermon, by Jesus, interpreting commands such as these. The commands we hear this morning from this section of the sermon on the mount can be confusing. Once scholar suggests that we cannot understand them apart from the one who is saying them. After all, this is the same Jesus who (later in the gospel) says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them..”(Matthew 23:2-4)

Greg Carey (of Lancaster Theological Seminary) reminds us, “These sayings emphasize doing what Jesus says…the thesis insists upon righteous conduct, including Torah observance, that exceeds even that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is calling for a deeper and more radical way of following God. And it is important that he is saying these words for personal reflection, not to be put upon others.

Diana Butler Bass in her recent book “Grounded” describes the understanding of how to be a faithful person is shifting. She says: “Who and what, along with their authoritarian answers, have been traded for the experiential and open-ended concerns of where and how. This idea might help us understand these texts and move away from a rigid literalism. (Bass, Diana Butler Grounded, Harper One: New York, 2015, p. 10)

These instructions were offered to God’s people as they returned from exile, spoken to a people who knew what it meant to try and live a holy life in the midst of a culture that was quite different. Jesus speaks to a people who knew these same commands by heart. The preacher Jesus is suggesting that through the years these instructions have not been properly understood.

It is not Judaism that is the problem, it is institutional Christianity. We need to realize that we are the recipients of a tradition that has turned these sayings into a justification for docility and obedience to ‘the way things are.’ Many people of color, women, persons of various sexual orientations, and the poor have found themselves at the blunt end of the powers that be that have used Jesus’ words as a way to control and manipulate them by insisting upon their marching in step with a particular, and privileged, arrangement of the world.

Jesus’ words have been twisted to insist that somebody else be ‘obedient,’ and that an other not be persistent in their justice work, but be docile and compliant. “Turn the other cheek” can be used by those in power to keep others in line. These are situations that Jesus is not envisioning here. The exercise of self-giving, and of “going the extra mile,” are meant to be liberating and not enslaving. It is there, in being generous and offering grace, that God dwells.  Let me tell you a story:

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.
“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”
Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.

“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.
Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.
“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”
Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”
“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” (A story from NPR, Morning Edition, 2008: http://www.npr.org/2008/03/28/89164759/a-victim-treats-his-mugger-right)
On this seventh Sunday after Epiphany, it may be difficult at first to identify the promise God offers in these texts. Jesus here is “at his ornery best offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one that is giving it.” As with much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is waking up a generation of people for whom the Law–now so associated with the powerful who are guardians of its precise following–only presents itself as a burden and obligation. The religious people, at least the ones we bump into in the Gospels, have become disconnected from God and the ordinary people, but Jesus speaks of these obligations from a personal place, offering for all who hear a reinterpretation that brings life rather than death.

This revolution is not unlike the revolution going on now. It is not so much that people do not believe in God, but that their faith in the institution has failed or is failing. This sense of failing is that we have put our hope in the wrong things. God is present in acts of mercy and kindness and healing and grace. Holiness is not only a demand, it is a condition.  That is the promise. There is justice in this kind of faithful following.

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