A greater righteousness

16 February 2020; Sixth Sunday after Epiphany; Epiphany 6A (RCL); Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37.

Both the Deuteronomy and Sirach passages use a form of ethical instruction called ‘the two ways.’ The Psalms are replete with examples, beginning with Psalm 1. The Didache is a prime example. Matthew seems to use it for his own purposes. Rather than setting out a contrast between the way of life and the way of death (the usual pattern), Matthew sets out a contrast between the old way and the new way.

Matthew sets up this contrast with the verses just before this passage in which he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” In each of these antithesis, the first statement is righteousness as taught by religious authorities, beginning with Moses. Each is capable of a rather casuistic interpretation. If you murder, you will be liable for judgment — as if the reason for not murdering was not wanting to be killed yourself.

Instead, says Jesus, to live in community, it is requisite not even to be angry at a brother or sister, or to call them a fool. Of course, this is impossible, so provision is made for breach of conduct. If, while making your offering, you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, first go be reconciled to your brother or sister, then come make your gift.

In the old way, we are not to commit adultery. Interestingly, in the Old Testament, any married woman having sex with someone not her husband and the man with whom she is having sex are committing adultery. A man having sex with a woman other than his wife is not (unless the woman is married). Adultery rests squarely on the woman. It’s about property right. Jesus turns it around and says that any man looking at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery, whether the woman is married or not. Relationships in the new community are not about property rights, but about respect and self-worth.

The old way allows for divorce. Marriage is seen as a matter of law. Jesus places an (almost) absolute restriction on divorce. This protects the status of women in the community. They are not property to be disposed of at whim. Instead, marital love and sex is part of God’s plan for creation.

The old way allows for the swearing of oaths. The new way requires truthfulness even without oaths.

Jesus is setting up an ethic that makes living in community possible. He moves the torah (law or way of life) beyond rules and consequences for breaking them to an expectation of the way we live in community. Righteousness then becomes a matter of community living rather than an attribute of individuals. Righteousness is what we owe one another in community, or the currency of social capital. Matthew is imagining community as a face-to-face affair, not as a structure requiring codification and adjudication.

Matthew sees this face-to-face local community as God’s plan for humanity. Family, neighborhood, church community — these are the basic units of the Kingdom of Heaven. In our daily lives, these are the contexts in which can live ‘as if’ we were living in the Kingdom

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