Matthew 5:13-20

On the surface this Gospel seems to mirror the very situation we find ourselves in today.  Surely most of us are troubled by the divisiveness that wracks our country.  Nowadays, us-against-them crops up everywhere you look.  The Gospel today also shows us a division — a familiar one: Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees.  Let’s take a look below the surface of this reading, and discover some surprising guidance.

Jesus grew up in the Jewish faith; it formed him through and through.  He railed against the scribes and Pharisees, not because he rejected his faith, not even because he rejected them, but because, for them, religion went no further than the law and the prophets — you could say it stopped with the externals of religion, head stuff.

Obviously some people took Jesus’ polemics against the scribes and Pharisees as a repudiation of the law and the prophets; hence Jesus’ outspoken defense of the law and the prophets, as we just heard.  The law and the prophets, he was saying, make a starting place, an essential starting place, but not the goal.

So Jesus chastises the scribes and the Pharisees time and again.  He is fierce, even scathing, but out of what we might call today tough love.  Jesus could see that they were in as much need of spiritual salvage as any of the people — maybe more — and his heart went out to them; but privilege blinded them to their need.  You’ve heard it said that the church’s job is to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.  Jesus could best express his love for the scribes and Pharisees by afflicting them.

What is the real issue, then, between Jesus and the Jewish leadership?  Jesus said in today’s episode, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  That one word, fulfill, holds the key to understanding the real issue.  Jesus uses the word fulfill a lot.  For example, in John’s gospel he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.”  Imagine if you built a sail boat.  You have it all right and tight, strong keel, sturdy rudder, but it still needs a sail.  The law and the prophets are that beautiful sea-worthy boat.  The joy is the wind in the sail.

Getting this right is so important!  In this passage Jesus is talking about a two-step process.  First comes formation; second comes transformation.  First comes the law and the prophets; that is, what can be taught.  They shape our actions, intentions, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  Even more basic: they make us aware that right and wrong exist, and that there are consequences to our choices.  We cannot ignore the law and the prophets or we’ll be non-starters on the journey of life.

Second, transformation.  It cannot be taught.  Transformation is hard to talk about, because it has to be experienced.  To return to the analogy of the boat, transformation is the wind in the sail — it has to be caught.  Transformation leads to a sense of flying free in a wide open sea.  It deals with the internals, with the heart and soul.  Formation, we could say, deals with the realm of duality — I see the differences between you and me.  Transformation deals with the realm of unity — I sense how, at bottom, you and I are one.  Formation allows you to see what is wrong about what I am doing or saying.  Transformation  allows you to call me out, without giving me the sense that I am being judged, rejected, or am in some sense inferior.  You do it with compassion.

What was that life-changing attraction that drew disciples, and even crowds, to Jesus?  Wasn’t it the way he appeared to fly free in the wind?  His unfettered joy?  The sense they had that he was unreservedly alive in the present moment?  For myself, when I’m in the presence of someone I have judged and found wanting, I feel squeezed inside, anything but free.  I even feel knots when I think of those people.  In short, I’ve run aground in a moral swamp.  Jesus didn’t let himself go there.

Some of you may be thinking of Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Not hold her or him in aversion?  Not judge them?  Not put a chasm between her or him and me?  How is that possible?  Look at Jesus.  He knew that we can only speak out in protest effectively if we are speaking from a place of compassion — from a place where we feel no division between us and them.  If, in Jesus, we see God in human form, then he could not reject the one who does wrong — not put up a barrier, not hold that person in aversion.  He could only feel his oneness with them.  So he is showing us that most difficult of all achievements: how to be critical of others without rejecting them, without judging them; without allowing a gap to open up between us and them.  Only from that position could he speak truth to power… with power.

At this point some of you are saying, “Where is the good news in that?  Where is the promised comfort?  If I’m supposed to have compassion for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton — and harder still, not separate myself from them — I simply can’t do it!”  Fair enough; we’re all students in the school of love, not graduates.

But think of this.  Suppose Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees in such a way that they heard loathing and contempt.  In other words he went beyond chastising their willful ignorance and their failed leadership.  He actually deplored them.  If Jesus, God in human form, can separate himself from other human beings on the basis of their bad behavior, what about us?  How perfect are we?  Not only that, but he would be giving us permission, by his example, to do the same.  He’d be an enabler — enabling us to tie ourselves up in knots, give away our freedom — the very thing he accused the scribes and Pharisees of doing to their people.

So for us who are comfortable, this Gospel reading afflicts us.  It afflicts us by condemning our behavior, to the extent that we judge others and find them wanting.  And for us who are afflicted, this Gospel reading comforts us.  It comforts us with the assurance that no matter how aground we may be in a moral swamp, Jesus will be right there beside us, never drawing away.  And for us who are desperate to bring about change, this Gospel reading says we can never be more effective than when our words — critical though they be — come from a place of full-hearted compassion.

I’ll sum this up by closing with a story.  In Woodstock the Episcopal priest teamed up with the rabbi of the synagogue to team teach a class they designed called “Common Origin, Separate Paths.”  They billed it as not seeking what we have in common, but exploring our differences.  In the first few classes discussion felt formal, even stiff; for both sides knew how prejudice against Jews, rooted the New Testament, had given rise to nearly 2,000 years of bitter persecution.  But the teachers modeled respect for each other, and openness to whatever was said.  Gradually trust built up; we began to trust that we could express our true opinions and beliefs; that we could differ point blank, and still be members of the same community of spiritual seekers.  In the end, the experience transformed most, if not all, of us.  Our own faiths were vastly enriched, and equally, we saw for the first time how infinitely rich was the others’ tradition.  In terms of today’s Gospel, we had become the salt of the earth and lamps on a lamp stand.  We differed, yes, irrevocably; but we overcame our separation.  In fact, we discovered our basic oneness, and we added greatly to the flavor and savor of our separate religions.

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