Lectionary Reflection—19 February 2017
“Christianity is always political. But not in the ways we imagine — for the Beatitudes are its constitution, and love is its only law.”
Diana Butler Bass, 13 Feb 2017
“You’ve heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
“You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you’ll be acting as children of your Father who’s in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father’s complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been in awe over the Lectionary readings. It’s like Divine Providence just knew we’d need to read these passages in light of our current political climate.
Just this past week, I’ve seen a few different posts on social media about President Trump’s favorite Bible verse, “an eye for an eye.” And yet in the above passage, which is part of what’s known as “The Sermon on the Mount” and includes “The Beatitudes,” Jesus said something different. He said, “But I say to you that you mustn’t oppose those who want to hurt you…”
Now I’ve heard people dance around these statements to try and show that they don’t mean what they appear to mean; that Jesus didn’t really mean “you mustn’t oppose those who want to hurt you.” If one concedes that Jesus did mean these words, it’s usually followed with, “but he’s talking about when you’re preaching the gospel.” But that’s neither what Jesus said nor intended. Not in the least.
The saying “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is taken from the Torah, i.e., the Law of Moses (Exodus 21.24; Leviticus 24.20; Deuteronomy 19.21), and refers to “proportional justice”—meaning that such measures would prevent disproportionate revenge. If someone injured you and you lost an eye, the law only allowed that the eye of the offender be removed. All of this to say, these words have nothing to do with “preaching the gospel;” they’re about everyday life. Take the passage from Exodus 21, for example. It’s right in the middle of a section on laws pertaining to human violence (vv.12-27). Furthermore, it’s surrounded by laws about slavery (vv.1-11) and laws about animals and property (vv.28ff). And those laws came after the ten commandments in the previous chapter (Exodus 20). In fact, this whole section (Exodus 20-23) contains the Laws—the Law—for Israel about how they should conduct their lives as the people of Yahweh. So when Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you…” he’s specifically referring to how people who follow Jesus are to conduct their daily lives. These things are what’s expected of someone who claims to follow Jesus.
Like I stated above, this passage is within the “Sermon on the Mount,” which starts off with the “Beatitudes” (vv.1-12). And in this “sermon” Jesus said, “Don’t even begin to think that I’ve come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). For the longest time, people have argued over and over about what this means. Some maintain that Jesus means the Law of Moses will never go away while others believe that Jesus ended the Law (see Romans 10.4). But I think this is the wrong way to look at it.
When Paul wrote that Jesus was the “end of the Law” (Romans 10.4), he wasn’t meaning Jesus did away with the Law. He meant that the Law reached its intended goal. As he states in another place (Galatians 3.19-25), the Law was given to Israel as a guardian until the arrival of the Messiah. But once the Christ came, the Law was no longer needed. Think of it like this: if I were to take a plane trip across country, once I arrived at my destination, I wouldn’t need the plane any longer. It’s not to say the plane wasn’t “good.” It means that the plane carried me to my goal. This is what Paul’s saying about the Law in Romans 10.
But what does that have to do with Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5? It seems that Paul contradicted what Jesus said when he said, “I haven’t come to do away with [the Law].” But that’s usually where people stop. He goes on to say, “I came to fulfill them.” But what does that mean? Our passages from the Lectionary show us.
When Jesus said, “But I say to you…,” he’s showing us the full purpose of the law—of what it looks like at the fullness of its intention. The Law was to point to Jesus and Jesus shows us what the Law looks like in its fullness. And the fullness of “an eye for an eye” means to do no harm. In other words, the Law was given to lead us to Love. And not just to love our friends and neighbors. No. We’re to love our enemies, too. Jesus said that when we do that, we’ll be acting like God’s children because we’ll be “complete” just as God’s “complete.” (v.48). The Greek word for “complete” is τέλειος (teleios) and it means “brought to completion; fully developed; fully realized.” Some translations have “perfect” or “mature” and, while those are legitimate translations, I think too many of us get hung up on being “perfect.” The idea of τέλειος is that of, once again, reaching the intended goal, of becoming “fully developed.” Jesus is telling us that loving one’s enemies is to finally reach what the Orthodox call theosis—“the transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God.” Thus, it is this that “fulfills the law.”
When we stay in the Law of Moses as our guiding principles, as President Trump does and many others do, we are neglecting their intended purpose—to lead us to Jesus. And since Jesus has come, the job of the Law is complete. We’re now to look to Jesus who shows us what the fully realized life looks like—loving God, loving neighbor as oneself, and loving our enemies. It’s just like the Beatles said, “All you need is love.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC