Stricter righteousness?

16 February 2014
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 6A (RCL)
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than for you whole body to go into hell.” As a CPE chaplain at the Massachusetts General Hospital, I visited patients in the rehab wing of the hospital. One of the patients was a young man whose right hand had been surgically reconstructed. He was maybe 16 years old. He had committed that most adolescent male unoriginal of sins, and then took this passage to heart. He had laid his right hand (the offending hand) on a railroad track in front of a passing freight. I wish I could remember what I said to him about this passage, or whether I had any real effect on him. I do remember that I made sure the psych department came to see him. Deep in my pastoral soul, I can’t believe this is what Matthew’s Jesus meant.

But if not that, then what? Last week’s Gospel ended with the saying, “If your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is now what that excessive righteousness looks like. This righteousness applies to the community Jesus laid out in the beatitudes, the community that holds as honorable the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the meek and the persecuted. I think the key to interpreting the passage comes in one of the few clear community rules we find in any gospel: if you are making your offering at the altar, and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there and first go be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come make your offering. Notice what this doesn’t say: it doesn’t say “if you have something against your brother or sister.”

This form of righteousness concerns not personal standards, but instead relationships within community. The early Christian communities caricatured the scribes and Pharisees as being concerned with outward conformity to the rules of torah, rather than with intention, and presumably with making sure of one’s own righteousness. By keeping the rules one guaranteed meeting the standard of righteousness. Matthew’s sermon on the mount refocuses the whole matter of righteousness to the nature of community (which Judaism also did — only the Christian caricature is distorted). Each of the admonitions in today’s reading can be understood that way. Murder is certainly a damage to community, and can be adjudged quite clearly. Anger is not always so obvious, but is equally corrosive to community. Even insults will tear the fabric of community.

Divorce tears the fabric of community, but lust begins to unravel that fabric long before matters arrive at divorce. And divorce (in those days as in these) is certainly worse economically for women than for men, so Jesus wants to safeguard the weakest members of the community. False oaths likewise undermine the way community works, but the way to avoid that is to build the kind of community in which one’s word is sufficient.

In that case, we can interpret the logia about hands and eyes as a reversal of the doctrine of retributive justice, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” In its day, that was an advance: if a slave owner had put out the eye of a slave, a simple monetary fine (if anything) took care of the matter. Everyone’s eye counted the same. In this case, justice is not retributive, but proactive (and of course, hyperbolic). Jesus is setting a kind of hedge around the rules of righteousness (like any good rabbi did). But rather than hedges on actual trespasses, the hedges are on intention. We are being told to keep a watch on intention. Anger will tear a community apart, but no one else can address the anger than the one who is angry. If you have too, make the hard decision not to be angry; give up the idea of retribution, of exacting your pound of flesh.

The Deuteronomy passage in its own way holds up the same ideal. At any give moment, facing any given decision, we can choose what makes for life or what makes for death. Being in community is hard work and takes a constant watch, not to let anger or lust or any of the passions take over our relationships.

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