Flinders, looking south to Wilpena Pound November 2014

Don't Be Law Abiding!

Week of Sunday Feb 23
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I hope you are not a law abiding citizen....

because...

Jesus did not say, "Abide in the law." He said, "Abide in me!" Don't live according to the law. Live according to me! (John 15:4) That means to live beyond and above the law of the land. It means to live much better than the law of the land.

The law of the land is for when things go wrong. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for  a tooth" was a law to limit revenge when things went wrong. The law is the outer limit of our behaviour. In our time you may drive down South Road at 60 kilometres per hour. The police, and the safety authorities, and cyclists would all like you to go slower. It would be safer and better for everyone. The law is the limit.

In our Wednesday Bible study someone asked, "How can you not resist evil? How can there be justice if we don't resist evil?" Jesus means us to ask that question, I think.

Jesus means us to think it through and to discover that we can't live by the law of the land and the law of the courts. There's always an exception the law doesn't cover; there's always doubt— or if there's not doubt— there is always some extenuating circumstance. The courts are simply there to limit the damage, and to limit revenge, and to stop further injustice, if things go wrong. They are the last resort because we have already failed to live well.

What we should strive to do is to fix things before we get to the courts. "Come to terms quickly... while you are on the way to court," Jesus says in Matthew 5:25. Ideally, we would live so the courts and the law are not needed.

Matthew Chapter 5 is about convincing us of the impossibility of keeping rules, and especially about convincing us of the impossibility of keeping rules in order to be like Jesus. It  cannot  be  done!

So what's the answer?  How do we live?

The secret is at the end of the chapter— "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect!"

Well that sounds helpful!! About as helpful as throwing a drowning man a lead life jacket!

That's because a lot gets lost in the translation from Jesus' words from Aramaic into Greek, and then, into English. If he was talking in Australian, mate, he would say, "Look— give yourself completely in the way God gives himself completely."

Give yourself completely in the way God gives God's self completely.

Let's unpack that.

He doesn't say "be equal to God." That's impossible. He says, "Be like..." Live like God would live.

I told you about my 5 year old friend who rode up Willunga Hill before the Tour Down Under. Imagine if he was a bit scared. His Mum would have said, "Just be like Daddy." (His daddy is a good triathlete.) Of course he can't be equal to his dad— he's only five— but he can be like his dad in his approach and in his attitudes.

The Greek word they translate as perfect is teleos. It means "be complete," and it has sense of maturity in its meaning. What was complete— mature— for me when I was ten, was not complete when I was twenty. And what was complete then, would be very immature now!

So how is God complete..., and how are we complete like God?

Well, God gives. God gives us the world.  God gives us life. And in the end God gives, it says, "His only begotten Son." (John 3:16) That word   begotten  essentially means the Son is so intimately connected to the Father that there is a sense in which not only Jesus dies on the cross, but God dies. God gives God's Self.  Utterly.  Totally. To everyone. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike.

If we are going to be like Jesus; that is, if we are going to be complete like God is complete, we are going to give ourselves as much as we can. And the next time we'll try to give ourselves more...

... simply because it is right and good....

and from that comes a great, bonus, unexpected blessing.

Giving... being generous... being compassionate...makes us whole. It makes us more human.
It makes us like God.

In a very real sense, it makes us perfect; that is, it completes us.

So let's hear some "Old" Testament, because Jesus is not telling us something new here. He's completing what we've already been told.  Micah 6:6 asks

With what shall I come before the Lord?
[What does the Lord require?],
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good...
do justice...  love kindness,
and ... walk humbly with your God.

Give... Don't take— give.

And then from the Deuteronomy reading last week, where Moses has preached a very long sermon just before the people enter the Promised Land of Israel at last. This is how he winds it up in Chapter 30:

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

He goes on to say, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live..."

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live...

Now let me read to you from The Last Battle, which is the last book of the Narnia Tales by C.S. Lewis. The end of the world is fast approaching, and the children who are the heroes of the series have already entered heaven. We are in the chapter called, "How the Dwarfs Refused to Be Taken In."

Aslan appears, and if you've read the books, you know Aslan is how Jesus is made flesh in the land of Narnia. Narnia is a land of talking animals and Aslan is a great Lion.

Aslan raised his head and shook his main. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarf's knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn't much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn't taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he'd found a raw cabbage leaf.

And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said "Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of the trough that a donkey's been at! Never thought we'd come to this."

But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden underfoot.

But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: "Well at any rate there is no Humbug here. We haven't let anyone take us in…"

"You see," said Aslan. "They will not let us help them. ... Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out." CS Lewis The Last Battle in the chapter "How the Dwarfs Refused to Be Taken In."

The Dwarfs in this story had perished— I'm making a pun on the word perish in Deuteronomy. The Dwarfs looked the same. But something in them had died. It had perished; rotted away. They were blind to beauty and glory and love and gift.

In the story the Dwarfs were in the sunshine in a beautiful grassy countryside with woods and fruit trees. But they were convinced they were sitting in the dark... in a dirty stable.

This happens to people.... Part of us shuts down; it rots; it perishes, and we can become blind to the gifts of God. A little bit of us dies...

Don't abide in the law. Be better than the law. Abide in Christ. Choose Life. Amen.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Andrew Prior 21-09-2016
I had been struggling with the passage in Matthew 5:39–41 that runs, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That little word, “right,” where did it come from? I had never noticed it before. Since adopting the Socratic method of teaching back during my field work in Harlem, I naturally asked the class I was teaching at the time what that little word, “right,” was doing there. Nobody had a clue, the teacher included. It was the clue! In a moment of inspiration I suggested that a couple of people get up and role-play the text. Two volunteered. “Now,” I began, “face off. Which of you will be the hitter, which the ‘hittee’?” That settled, I said to the hitter, “How will you strike your opponent?” He made a fist and faked a blow with his right hand. But someone objected: the text doesn’t say right fist, but right cheek. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Another student chimed in. The only way one could strike the right cheek would be with the back of the right hand. I spent the weekend studying backhand blows, and brought my results to class. “What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her ‘place.’ ” I had learned that one normally did not strike a peer, and if he or she did the fine was exorbitant. A backhand slap, then, was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which fighting back and retaliating would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering in submission. This realization opened a floodgate for all sorts of new insights. It became important to ask who Jesus’s audience is. Jesus’s listeners are not those who strike, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you”). There were, among his followers, people who were subjected to these very indignities and forced to stifle their inner outrage. These were people who suffered dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? And it clicked: Because the action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying: “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, what can he do? He cannot use the backhand because the slave’s nose is in the way. He cannot use his left hand regardless. If he hits with his fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. The whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality. Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made. The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance. How far this is from the passive reaction taught by the churches!

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