Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday 23 February 2014 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Love you neighbour / God builds the church / Working with God on the church / Love your enemies

Sentence: If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Matthew 5:39)


Give us, we pray you, gentle God,
a mind forgetful of past injury,
a will to seek the good of others
and a heart of love. Amen.


Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48


Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

What is the single decisive intersection between the Sermon on the Mount (see our Gospel reading) and the Law of Moses (a part of which is the Old Testament reading today)?

A good case can be made that both concern holy living - the way of living which sets the godly person apart from the ungodly person, or, we could also say, the distinctive way of life which marks a believer in the God of Israel who is the God of Jesus Christ from those who do not so believe.

Leviticus 19 begins with a clear call to holiness: 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy' (2).

In what follows (including the omitted verses, 3-8), holy living is set out in detail. It includes acts of mercy and kindness (9-10, 14), actions most if not all cultures value re truth, honesty, respect for possessions of others and fair dealings (11, 13, 15-16), a distinctive action - not swearing falsely by God's name (12), and love rather than hatred towards neighbours including not taking vengeance and bearing grudges (17-18). The whole chapter covers even more ground in terms of human relationships, some of which makes perfectly good sense to this day (e.g. 31, 32), some of which we might want to debate (e.g. prohibition on tattoos, 28) and some of which might simply puzzle us (e.g. 27).

Sometimes the Law of Moses is derided as though it is out of date, out of touch primitive law-making for a people as far removed culturally from us as Mars is from Earth. But careful reading here impresses on us the Law's care and concern for holy living, for just, fair and honest dealings with people, for acts of kindness and mercy, and for love not hate towards others.

What is not to like?

Psalm 119:33-40

Look back to last week's post for comments on Psalm 119 in general as a psalm devoted to praising, receiving, and obeying the rules and commandments of God.

Here we might note the conviction of the psalmist that obedience to the Law of Moses is a means of life (35, 37, 40).

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Continuing from last week and the week before, Paul rounds off his argument (i.e. concern and anxiety for the well-being of the Corinthian church expressed through a persuasive argument) that the diverse work of Paul and Apollos is one work of God with a new image: last week, planting/watering/growing; this week, building. Paul has laid a foundation and Apollos has built on that but it is one building, not two.

The imagery is both ambiguous and capable of extension. The ambiguity is that if the church is a building built by Paul and Apollos, it is also God's building, its true foundation being Jesus Christ (11) and its status as 'God's temple' (16-17). The extension is that if the foundation is Jesus Christ and the work of apostles (= church planters/builders, both ancient and modern, both the Twelve (+Paul) and the likes of Apollos) is that of builders, then one day there will be ... a building inspection!

'Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done' (12-13).

As we each contribute to the building of God's church (which we do, by being members of the church, this is not just about 'ministers' or 'priests'), what are we building?

A sobering thought, especially when we read on through verses 14 and 15.

But Paul is not done here as he provokes the Corinthians about their poor showing re the state of their church. Moving the image of a building (in general) along, Paul questions the Corinthians (as a prosecutor in court might question a witness). 'Do you not know that you are God's temple (in particular) and that (just as ancient Israel believed God dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem) God's Spirit dwells in you?' (16)

Disunity and division has capacity to 'destroy God's temple' (17). Well, Corinthians, note that God is not a neutral bystander when his (or we might say, 'HIS') temple is being destroyed (17).

Paul then reprises his talk of wisdom and foolishness from chapters one and two (18-20). That is, Corinthians: get up to speed here. You can be wise (and understand the true, unitary character of the one church of God built on the single foundation of Jesus Christ) or foolish (bitterly pursuing rivalries and competitions to destruction).

In short, Paul cuts to the conclusional chase, 'So let no one boast about human leaders'  (21).

Effectively, Paul says, you are very small-minded, you Corinthians. You need to open your eyes: you can have everything and not settle for one thing (or one leader): 'all belong to you' (22).

Matthew 5:38-48

This passage is so well-known, phrases from it are embedded in the English language (e.g. 'turn the other cheek', 'going the second mile' and 'love your neighbour').

A detailed background in a commentary will bring to life aspects of the passage (e.g. why Jesus referred to the right cheek, or who it was who might ask you to carry something for one mile).

Here, in a brief commentary, we simply highlight that these verses envision a kingdom of generosity. Less eye for eye and tooth for tooth, more shaming your adversary by doing more for them than they require of you. Give freely, love inclusively. Pray for persecutors, love the unlovely.

In sum, be like God (48). (That takes us back, incidentally, to Leviticus 19:1-2 and its call to holiness because we are the people of a holy God.)

We could get to the last verse and despair: a counsel for perfection is just too hard, isn't it?

Yes, it is too hard if what Jesus was meant that the moment his sermon ended, he expected his hearers to be perfect. Yes, it is too hard if we are meant to be perfect in our own strength.

But, no, it is not too hard if we read more widely in Scripture and recognise the promise of the Holy Spirit, that God the Spirit will come to each of God's people and work in us to bring us to maturity in Christ.

And, no, it is not too hard if we recognise that the kingdom of God works on people being wholly committed to the gracious and loving way of God. It would not be the kingdom of God if it was worked on the basis of 'Try your best. If you love most people but nurse hatred and bitterness towards a few, that's fine. Give to the beggars who are not utterly repulsive. Only go the extra mile if it suits and you are not too tired.' Of course not!

That is, Jesus is not so much asking perfection of us, but asking us to commit to the perfect vision of the kingdom: the kingdom in which all are loved and grace touches everyone, including evildoers and enemies.

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