Week of Sunday 23 February Epiphany 7:
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
On the cross, after he had promised everything, it was all too much. Despite all his faith Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" He lost his faith at that moment, but it was too late. He was nailed down and tied on. There was no escaping. (Mark 15:34)
Dave and Mary were being flooded out. Their only hope was to go into the river and trust they could float it out and get ashore safely somewhere down stream. Mary was a poor swimmer, so Dave lashed them together. He bound himself to her in a great act of faith and love. He would die with her.
In whirlpools and new rapids far outside the old bed of the river they began to drown; the knots unravelled, and finally, as Mary dragged him down, Dave let go. Like Jesus, he lost his faith. He could not go the course. But this time there were no nails, and the ropes had come loose. He could climb down from his cross, and struggle ashore.
Grace, also known as the great, unstinting, limitless love of God, means that God still loved Jesus and still loved Dave, even though they failed. Even though they stopped trusting God. Even though Dave was able to escape.
Being "perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect," means to so bind ourselves to the loveful purposes of God that there is no escape when it goes bad. It is not mere assent, or intellectual affirmation. It is a wholesale giving of ourselves to the cause of the Kingdom of Heaven just as God has given Godself to us. And Grace, the limitless love of God, means that if we fail— when we fail— and if we are able to cut ourselves free, and save ourselves, (Matt 16:25) we are not rejected. And it means that when we wish we could get out of it all, and can't— even if we curse God— we are not rejected. God's love is greater than that.
It is in this spirit we should understand the Greek word teleos that is in Matthew 5:48. If we understand it in the sense of "utter perfection," then we are lost. No one can be perfect without blemish. The only way to manage being perfect without blemish is to reify those Hebrew and Christian metaphors of sacrifice and cleansing which mean all our sins and imperfections are heaped onto Jesus the Divine Scapegoat so that we are made perfect and without blemish by default.
By reify I mean to say that we take the old Hebrew idea of the scapegoat and say "this really happens." To reify means we say forgiveness and cleansing are not simply metaphors— albeit immensely powerful and important metaphors— for understanding the limitless love of God; they are not symbols that may usher us into the reality of knowing God's love; they are real thing. In this spirit the cross is a transaction, a payment. If the scapegoat is not a symbol, and if we are seriously literally mean teleos to be "without blemish," we reduce the cross to a magic, to a manipulation of the underlying structures of the universe to pay for and remove our imperfections.
Magic is the old word for science. Science and technology understand and manipulate the underlying structures of the universe in order to create an outcome; they are magic that works! (My son says magic tries to subvert the underlying structure of the universe.) Science knows we can't manipulate God. Primitive religion— I don't mean by that old or ancient religion— seeks to manipulate God, even to force God to subvert the underlying realities. Prosperity theology, for example, which is still very current, has deep currents of primitive religion.
Mature religion knows that we can only trust God and work with God; not manipulate God. I submit that in the modern sense of the word magic, if we reify the metaphor teleos then we descend into magic.
After writing this I discovered Bill Loader's reflection.
Alas, the call to be perfect like God in 5:48 has rendered the Sermon on the Mount impractical for many and consigned it to the category of utopian ideals, or rules for monks, or, worse still, of a mechanism of guilt designed to shame in preparation for the message of forgiveness though the gospel. It is hard to believe Matthew saw it in any of these ways. When we approach it statistically in terms of quantities instead of quality, we miss the point. The Q version of the saying read: Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Matthew is not abandoning that theme, but portraying a challenge of Jesus to let God be God - God of all. Why anything less than that? Is God not God? Matthew's Jesus calls for a total commitment to a God who calls us to love even enemies. Bill Loader
‘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.
How do we interpret Jesus' words in the context of teleos love, bearing in mind that his words here are also metaphor? Quoting Bill Loader again:
The ... [Greek word teleos] word means "perfect' and "mature". It is about grown-up faith. It is not about partial or part-time religiosity. There is for Matthew only one way for all - being completely open to love, to receive it and give it. . In his own and sometimes controversial way Matthew makes this a theme through every main speech of Jesus and in the end makes it the sole criterion of judgement. Bill Loader
I take Bill to be referring to the great parable of Matthew 25:31ff where in the final judgment only the love of people for others counted.
But how do we live this in the complexity of life?
I remember once subjecting my ministers, and the rest of the youth group, to an appalling fundamentalist inspired outburst. Nairn and Ian took it on the chin, which I suspect means I stayed in the denomination that eventually rescued me from the abusive theology which had tangled me up. What would have happened if they had, quite reasonably, cut me off mid-rant?
Trying to figure out examples and boundaries simply does not work when we confront the text this week. Just when do you interrupt my rant in a bible study? When does your sacrificial decision to let me rant at you, but still be loved— which leaves the chance of me being open to healing and change and repentance— when does your decision become an abuse of someone else in the bible study?
If we take a simple example like this and remember that the behaviours of both of us are deeply, and often unconsciously, influenced by our psychological needs, and if you are facing a situation where passive-aggressive behaviour on my part is undermining your efforts, or if my behaviour is triggering memories of abuse or other trauma in your own life.... where can we go with love, hate, resistance and justice?
My colleague Diane Bury and I were batting this question around this afternoon. She reminded me of Moses' words in last week's reading from Deuteronomy 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.
We can't turn this into "do the right thing and you'll get a reward." That's primitive religion, and it misses the mark about the nature of God too thoroughly to be anything other than ultimately abusive, if not simply foolish. But we can live in ways that point us towards life or live in ways that point us toward death. We can live in ways that diminish us and our humanity, let alone abuse other people. There is a startling image in C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, where a group of dwarves has entered heaven, essentially, but can only see it as full of filth and deception. That is what living for death and adversity does for us. It means that a part of us perishes. We don't die, but part of us perishes while we are still alive. (How the Dwarfs Refused to be Taken In)
I come back to Matthew's text this week. The impossible contradictions, kōan like, which Matthew and Jesus put before us are saying choose life, don't hate. However you work through the mess of life, with all its imponderable and unanswerable dilemmas, don't hate. Don't go that way. You will perish, Andrew; the person will be there but all your elasticity, all your resilience, the very nature of your being— your humanity— will be compromised; it will perish. And sometimes there is no coming back from that. It becomes too late to change and heal.
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