7th SUNDAY (A) February 23, 2020

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18; 1Corinthians 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

WELCOME: to the latest email recipients of "First Impressions," the women retreatants from the Raleigh, North Carolina diocese.

I am tempted to sneak in a different Scripture reading today. Most parishes no longer have missalettes in the pews with today’s scripture readings and, except for a few who are reading texts on their cell phones… who would know the difference? I would prefer a miracle story. The drama! The sympathy it immediately would stir up. Some desperate person reaches out to Jesus; he admires their faith...and immediately the woman is healed...the man’s eyes are opened and people marvel! Now that makes a terrific story, hearing it we can sigh with relief and admiration.

Well, there are no sighs of delight and comfort today. These past weeks we have been hearing passages from the Sermon on the Mount and they should have us uncomfortable and on the edge of our seats. Jesus begins his teachings, "You have heard that it was said…." Then he gives his commentary on rules that guided the Jewish community. "You have heard that it was said, and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The passage is readily quoted by people who don’t read the Bible, to justify revenge and the death penalty. But originally it was a compassionate teaching against revenge on a mass scale. In their tight knit community, if a relative were injured, the whole family would rise up in revenge against the offender and their family. Soon families would be warring against families, tribes against tribes. Thus, the law was meant to scale down the violence, as if to say, "Just an eye for an eye. Just a tooth for a tooth."

Well that makes perfect sense. Except Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone. He adds that small, little conjunction, "But, I say…." That knocks out all our logic and anything we might name as a common sense" approach to religion. After all, don’t we want our religion to be sensible; something we would have no trouble explaining to an interested person? We would get a lot more numbers in our pews if being a Christian would fit more comfortably into the rest of our lives and was more "reasonable."

Jesus addresses what we have widely taken for granted in our culture and then adds that conjunction… "But" So, he might say something like this: "You have heard it said..." If someone pushes you, push them back. But I say to you… You have heard it said lock them up and throw away the key.... But I say to you.... You have heard it said, if they can’t learn the language send them back where they came from... But I say to you.... You have heard it said, we built this church, let those newcomers start their own parish... But I say to you... You have heard it said, my country right or wrong... But I say to you...."

Jesus listens to our well-worn wisdom; our accustomed ways of thinking and acting and stops us in our tracks with a little word, "But – I say to you." He names what we consider sound advice and then contrasts it with his own. The Sermon on the Mount may have been the reason Mark Twain said, "It’s not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me… it’s what I do understand."

Jesus is not talking about allowing ourselves to be victims. He is saying: don’t cooperate with harm in all its forms, don’t further it. Don’t fight fire with fire, try water. Don’t take part in all that adds to the blaze and causes injury and domination. Jesus’ teaching cannot help but evoke prayer in us; prayer for wisdom and prayer for strength.

Phrases from the Sermon are so familiar we can forget how demanding they are and how much they ask of us. "Love your enemies….Turn the other cheek….Pray for your persecutors….Go the extra mile." This isn’t a mushy faith on a Hallmark card. Jesus is very particular about what he expects from us. Imagine the interior strength a person must have living his teachings. He is not asking his followers to be victims. But imagine the sense of their own dignity his disciples would have standing unshaken and resolute before their enemies. The Sermon inspired Gandhi in his resistance to British colonialism. It inspired Martin Luther King and his followers to march nonviolently against racism and injustice in the face of fire hoses, billy clubs and German Shepherd police dogs.

Maybe there is a way out for us, some wiggle room. Perhaps the teachings were just meant for Jesus’ original followers; the women and men whose names are written in our Bible. Maybe his teachings were also meant for those who are great heroes of our faith, the "saints" whose names we were given at baptism, are written in our prayer books, and personified in our statues and stained glass windows. Was Jesus speaking to us, who live in this modern and complicated world? Was he speaking to today’s church spread throughout the world?

We would be let us off the hook if we just thought the Sermon on the Mount was meant for super heroes. Not so fast... the teachings are meant for each of us whose names are written in our parish baptismal registry. On those pages, where our names are inscribed, should be the heading, "People of the Sermon on the Mount."

The Sermon is not an easy teaching. Each of us is a work in progress, but we shouldn’t get discouraged, as the saying goes, "God’s not done with us yet." Jesus encourages us never to give up on our efforts to put flesh and blood on his teachings so that they don’t just remain on a page in a book, or a wall hanging. Jesus does more than encourage us however. Remember how the Sermon on the Mount began, with the Beatitudes? They are Jesus’ blessing for those he welcomes into his kingdom. That blessing bestows the grace to live the teachings day by day, in our complex and often distracting world.

As if it weren’t enough Jesus concludes with a another brief word, "So, be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Why would Jesus command what seems impossible? Maybe so we would never become complacent and say, "I’ve done what’s required." Maybe to remind us that if we are to love as God loves, and forgive as God forgives, we must be patient as God is patient. We must keep coming back here, with this community, to be reminded to put flesh on the Sermon on the Mount in the world. We can do that because we have been blessed by the Word of God and nourished by the life of Jesus at the table, We cannot live the Sermon by our own strength, but we remember what the angel said to Mary in announcing the Word of God taking flesh in her, "For nothing is impossible for God."

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: