February 16 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Theme: The first thing that popped into my mind as I started to think about the theme of this week’s readings was a rhetorical question: “Is this any way to live? Or perhaps, if we are really going to use this approach for a theme, we should pick something a little more assertive: “This is the Only Way to Live.” Whatever else our readings are about this week they are surely about reminding us that real faith is about real life – about real issues that confront us in the real world. It’s not primarily about making a difference, but living differently. We will only become a light to others when we become “brighter” than others! So something a little more up-market might be “Living the Vision” or “The Lifestyle Choice”: but please, NOT “Our own little bit of Paradise”!
Introduction. We start with Deuteronomy this week, which spells out the choice of lifestyle theme in black-and-white, and the importance of making the right fundamental choice. It really is a matter of life and death. St Paul sets the theme for the gospel by showing the community of faith at Corinth what their present style of life is really like. And Matthew disturbs our peace of mind with another challenging extract from the Sermon on the Mount.
Background. Now in my golden (=gold card) years I tend to look back almost as much as I look forward. What may be described rather loosely as my working life can be divided into two halves, one focussed on the law and the other on faith, and the product of all those years comes down to this: the purpose of law is to restrain human nature; the purpose of faith is to change it. [That may not seem a lot to show for the last fifty years or so, but it’s all I can offer at the moment so do your best to look impressed.] The events of this week illustrate that maxim pretty well, and the readings do the same.
Just think of some of the names that were in our headlines this week: Vice-Chancellor (or should that be CEO?) Harlene Hayne; Jesse Ryder and Doug Bracewell; Major Campbell Roberts; Kim Dotcom; Mallory Manning and the Mongrel Mob; Shane Jones and the Aussie supermarket brigade; Shapelle Corby; and, of course, a large number of people who passed out of the Wellington Sevens tournament and into the Emergency Department of the Public Hospital suffering from self-inflicted harm. What’s the common theme there? Major Campbell Roberts said it all: it’s about lifestyle. Until we stop choosing a life of self-interest and start caring about other people, the problems we face as a country (and as individuals) are only going to get worse.
Do we want a society in which education is just one more product, alongside beer, to be sold to the highest bidder? A world in which huge salaries are paid to sportsmen who need regular hospital treatment offered by people who are far better qualified and paid far less than those great role models? Do we want a world in which prostitution is held-up as a legitimate lifestyle choice (even a career path) with all the degradation, drug abuse, violence and criminal offending attendant on it? Do we want a world in which competition is to be glorified even when it leads to tactics in our supermarkets that smack of extortion?
So where is the law in all this? The best that we can say for the law is that things would be even worse without it; and, sometimes, the law can at least give us the satisfaction of seeing someone held to account.
Then what about education, training, or (as was seriously suggested for Jessie Ryder this week) “a little more guidance and support”? Of course, this ought to make sense. Education ought to be the route to better decision-making. But whenever I start to believe this I remember the question put by Dr Erich Geiringer to a witness before the Royal Commission on Liquor in 1974 to a witness who was passionately propounding the case for education as the means of tackling alcohol abuse: “If knowledge of the harm caused by alcohol abuse reduces the incidence of alcohol abuse, why does the medical profession have the highest rate of alcohol abuse among all the professions in this country?” I rest his case.
To sum up, the law can give us practical, rational reasons for not doing something that is harmful, either to ourselves or to others (and usually to both). So, too, can education, of course. But if they were enough in themselves the world would be a very different place, and its human inhabitants would be a very different species. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the Law, even when handed down from God, and even when backed by centuries of education, training and practice, are not enough in themselves. As a species we need something more. We need the power to transcend our natural selves, to overcome the dictates of our natural instincts bred into us through the millennia of evolution. We need to be set free to choose the better lifestyle. We need saving from ourselves. We need someone, not only to show us the way to live, but also to empower us to live it. We need God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And we need to remember that WE are God’s target audience. It is all too tempting to forget that the Scriptures are not directed to the human race in general, but to the people whom God calls to himself to be his people, the people of faith. As someone has said (well, okay, it was me but even so it was quite wise), God’s will does not need enacting, it needs following. All too often in the past we have looked to Parliament to enact a law to make people change their ways, when what God really wants us to do is adopt his ways.
Deuteronomy. We’ve heard a lot about last chances and final warnings this week; and there is a sense in which the last few chapters of this Book can be understood in that sort of light. The escape from slavery in Egypt was God’s doing; the extraordinary survival in the wilderness was God’s doing. We might say that the Exodus was the birth event for the Hebrews, and the wilderness years constituted their infancy, adolescence, and youth, during which they were brought up by God, guided, protected and instructed by him. Now they are on the verge of adulthood. God is still with them, of course, but they are now ready to take more responsibility for their own well-being. They are given a new freedom, a new opportunity, a fresh start. This passage spells it out. They are now free to live the life they have been taught, or to reject it and choose their own path. And let’s be clear about the meaning of this choice. Perhaps we have in our minds a life to be lived under divine surveillance: if they follow the right path God will reward them accordingly: if they do not, God will punish them severely. That is not what this passage means. It teaches that a life lived in accordance with God’s will is a blessed life, an enjoyable, enriching life, not one of drudgery to be lived in order to be rewarded (compensated) later. Equally, a life lived in contravention of God’s will is an unhealthy one, leading ultimately to our own destruction.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you put off by the legalistic language in this passage? Try writing it out in the language of advice or guidance.
· Notice how changing the tenor of the language changes your image of God (perhaps from Commanding Officer to loving parent or teacher).
· Looking back, are you conscious of having made a “whole-of-life” choice at some stage to follow God in the way envisaged by this passage?
· Have there been times when you have been “led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them”? How would you name those gods – success, career, popularity, money, family, self-indulgence?
Corinthians. St Paul uses that theme of infancy and immaturity as he continues to upbraid the relatively new believers at Corinth. Their behaviour reveals their immaturity. They are squabbling like fractious children. There is “jealousy and quarrelling” among them; and, most apposite of all, they are “behaving according to human inclinations”. They have lost sight of God.
Taking It Personally.
· Looking back, are you more mature in your faith than you were, say, 5 years ago? What differences can you see in the way in which you live out your faith day by day?
· St Paul’s imagery gets a little confused here. Are you a planter, a waterer, a field or a building? Or maybe one of God’s servants?
· To whom do you belong? In what sense?
· Is there division within your local church? Are you responsible for it? What can you do to help heal any such divisions?
Matthew. This week we have a second instalment of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus “unpacks” the Beatitudes. Cast as maxims or broad principles they can easily sound good to the ear without penetrating much deeper; but now we get to go a little deeper and they begin to sting. “Blessed are the meek” sounds rather nice, if counter-intuitive. But verses 21-26 spell out just some of the implications of this sweet-sounding principle. It means never losing our temper with other members of our fellowship (even during a vestry meeting), and never insulting them or even calling them rude names. Tougher still, perhaps, it means never pretending that all is sweetness and light between us when it isn’t, even to the point of not taking Communion until we have sorted the issue out. And it also means that if we are in dispute with someone in the church (even if he is the Bishop) we don’t start legal proceedings – we sought it out within the community of faith.
“Blessed are the pure in heart” is another one that sounds gentle and almost reassuring, until we test it in the light of verses 27-30. [By the way, what happened to gender-inclusive language here?]
Verses 31 and 32 are even more problematic. First it is notorious that Matthew has tampered with the teaching here, by inserting the proviso “except on the ground of unchastity (terrible word for which the NRSV must take responsibility)”; the proviso is not in Mark’s or Luke’s version. Matthew’s approach turns what is clearly a matter of broad principle into something more like a technical piece of law. Secondly, we need to be particularly careful about the pastoral issues surrounding these verses. It is one thing to uphold the ideal, quite another to treat divorced people in the way that has all-too-often happened in the recent past.
We finish with a peculiar concern about oaths that does not seem to us of quite the same importance as it did in Jesus’ time. As a matter of personal practice, I do not swear on the Bible; on the two occasions I have been called to give evidence in court I have made an affirmation, but I’m not sure why. And Moses seems to have had a different view: Deuteronomy 30:19.
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly through the whole reading first, remembering that it is a small part of a long block of teaching that Matthew has collected together in chapters 5-7. Notice the range of topics covering both personal issues and inter-personal ones. Can you detect any common threads?
- Which of the particular issues covered this week causes you the most anguish? Why? Can you talk to anyone about it? Can you pray about it?
- Is there anyone you are cross with at this moment? What can you do about it?
- Is there anyone within your community of faith with whom your relationship is strained at present? What can you do about that?
- How would you summarise the type of community envisaged in the Sermon on the Mount; and how does that compare with the community we presently have within the church?
- Do you have any suggestions to offer at your parish AGM?