This year’s Epiphany season Gospel readings have us hearing Jesus’ teaching in a section of Matthew’s Gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is really a collection of teachings, a basic summery of what Jesus must have told people over and over and over again everywhere He went. It begins with the Beatitudes, which we heard two weeks ago. Here, Jesus defines what happiness is all about: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the earth.” Last week we heard Jesus tell His followers “you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.”
Last week’s reading ended with Jesus telling folks He had not come to abolish all that the Law and the prophets had taught, but to fulfill it. He said that not one little dot of what had come before should be erased. He said that we must both keep the law and teach the law, which I take to mean we are to embody the Kingdom of God by so letting it inhabit us that our lives shout out the Gospel.
Now today, we hear Jesus begin to address specific issues of how the Law and the prophets were being taught and lived out in His own day. We can summarize His teaching by saying that Jesus both intensifies and internalizes the Law. It is no good for you to refrain from expressions of anger, but seethe within. It is no good for you to refrain from improper relationships, but still be racked with lust. Half-hearted commitments and vague promises will not do.
Jesus’ teaching could not be more clear. If you have wronged someone, go work it out. If you are being drawn toward something that is wrong, do whatever it takes to stay away. Remain faithful to your sacred commitments. Speak your intentions plainly. The teaching is clear, but we all know that following through is not. These are easy laws to pass along to others, but embodying them is another thing altogether.
Certainly the most vivid image Jesus uses is this: if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; if you hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Now we know that Jesus is speaking metaphorically because plain sense and scripture tell us so. Surely Jesus did not want His followers to maim themselves and we do not have one instance where He specifically instructs a person to do so, although we have several instances of His disciples sinning. Think of Peter: “I will never deny you,” he tells Jesus. But of course, he does… three times. When Jesus greets Peter after the Resurrection, He does not say to him, “Peter, about that denying problem you have… cut out your tongue and that will never happen again.” What He says is, “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
So Jesus is not telling us to pull out our eyes if we have lustful thoughts when we see someone attractive, nor is He telling us to cut off a hand if we are tempted too often to dip into the cookie jar. But these powerful, evocative images tell us something straightforward that is very important: we are to do whatever is necessary to stop our self-destructive tendencies and ways and we are to do whatever it takes to put an end to the damage we do to others. Again, this is easier said than done.
In our day and age self-destructive behavior takes many forms: addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, and over-eating are far too common. Some over spend, over-manage, and/or live life at a breakneck speed by being over-committed. Some of us are angry at the world. It becomes our default filter to process everything that happens, be it in our lives, in our families, in our community, or in our world. Others turn anger inward; torturously blaming the self for each and every little way they perceive themselves to be lacking. All of these too are types of addiction: self-destructive patterns of behavior that become so much a part of who we are and how we operate that it becomes difficult to believe we have the power to change.
Why is it so hard to pluck out the eye or cut off the hand of self-destructive or hurtful behavior? It is hard because we get insulated behind a wall of delusion and denial.
• There is a disconnect between how we see ourselves and our actual behavior.
• We repress the memory of painful events in order to escape the emotional consequences.
• Certain types of behavior, especially substance abuse, actually alter the chemistry in our brains in a way which either compromises or blocks our memory. For instance, a person under the influence of alcohol can perform complicated tasks, such as flying a plane or performing surgery, and have no recollection of the event.
• And finally, after time passes, we may experience what is known as “euphoric recall” where the memory of behavior is faded, but memory of the pleasure is heightened.
The more destructive our behavior becomes the more defensive and isolated we become. We shut ourselves off from those who know us best, who see us for who we are, and who love us unconditionally. And we shut off ourselves from God; hearing in His message harsh words of judgment and condemnation. But what God desires for each one of us is salvation. Our modern day understanding of salvation revolves around entrance into heaven, but the biblical notion deals more with health in the here and now. What God desires for you, what God yearns for you, what God offers to you, is health and fullness of life today.
I think we each hold on to a notion that God says this is who you are supposed to be. Sometimes we see ourselves clearly enough to know that there is a disconnect between who we are called to be and who we really are. Other times we are blind to the difference or in denial of it. To the degree that we recognize in ourselves behavior that is in conflict with our values we experience shame, guilt, fear, remorse, self-hatred, and feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. We deal with all of this spiritually as human beings have from the beginning of time. Do you remember what Adam did after he had eaten the apple? He covered himself and hid from God.
The Monk at Farne is a mystic English figure from the 14th century. I think he says something important to us today if we hide from ourselves or if we try to hide ourselves from God:
What then shall separate me for the love of Christ, and prevent me from casting myself into His embrace, when He stretches out His hands to me all day long? Shame at the sinfulness and impurity which defile me? No, indeed; a shame that would separate me from my Lord would be fatal. I will rather run to Him as He beckons me to come, and by touching Him I shall be cleansed from all impurity of body and soul…
I will gladly run to Thee albeit a sinner, albeit unclean, for with Thee there is merciful forgiveness; Thou wilt wash me in Thy blood, and I shall be made whiter than snow. I will enter into Thee and not stay without, for outside Thee there is no salvation.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus does not so much lay down the Law as He points the way to health and fullness of life. He doesn’t so much tell us to hide in shame and fear as He implores us to do whatever it takes to master our destructive and hurtful tendencies. In my experience, this is not a journey many of us undertake well when we undertake it on our own. We need allies, friends, supporters, professionals, and power from a Higher Power. Happiness lies down this path and this path alone. Hiding will not get you there. Do whatever it takes to begin this journey. There is nothing in life worth keeping if it costs you your life and the love of those who love you.