Whoa, Nellie! Did you hear last Sunday’s Gospel. Boy, oh boy, Jesus really ups the ante, doesn’t he?
In the portion of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (5:21-37), Rabbi Jesus takes what we’ve always known and take for granted and ups the ante. He makes it more intense, more real, and in so doing drives us into the heart of the matter. So while his teaching might have sounded like an appeal to perfectionism, he is in fact urging to think… really think… about what it means to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So, Jesus says, “you’ve heard it said that ‘you shall not kill,’ but I say don’t kill your neighbor with hateful, disdainful, or dismissive thoughts.”
And, Jesus says, “you have heard it said ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say don’t use the gift of your sexuality to use, abuse, or objectify another person.”
Then Jesus says, “it is customary for a man to decide when, where, and how to divorce his wife; but don’t let your power be an occasion to cause another person’s sin.” Okay…I’ll admit. I just threw the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of love and the Law into the Gospel… but I do that because the problem in Jesus’ day was that men held all the cards when it came to marriage, and Jesus was calling men out on making their spouses disposable. So, I think Jesus is saying, in effect, “you’ve heard it said that men can divorce his wife whenever he wants, but I say to you ‘don’t make people disposable.’”
And then Jesus says, “you have heard it said ‘don’t swear falsely.’ But I say to not only tell the truth, but avoid obfuscation and hair-splitting, but let your speech and your conversation be authentic.” As Jesus says, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.
I must admit that I get a little panicky when I hear Jesus talk like this. Everything about this passage makes our modern-day alarm bells go off: Rules! Judgementalism! Perfectionism! Ack!
Okay. We need to take a breath and think about Jesus’ words differently. Let’s start where Jesus started: Remember what he said were the two Great Commandments? Love God with all your being… heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.
We are so tempted to nod sagely as say “You’re so right Jesus.” But in this Gospel, Jesus moves into new territory essentially asking “what does loving God and loving neighbor really mean? How would it look?”
And that would mean that our “yes” would be an authentic yes, and our “no” an honest (if sometimes sad) no. That our word would reflect our authentic self.
It would mean that we would treat our neighbors, our family members, our spouses, and loved ones with respect and dignity.
It would mean that we would so honor our sexuality and value intimacy that we would work for honest and authentic relationships, even if that means being vulnerable and giving up our prerogatives in the name of love.
It would mean not just avoiding killing (or doing any kind of obvious evil) but respecting and preserving the dignity of every human being in every encounter and relationship we have.
You see, to really understand Jesus, we must understand that merely following the rules is not enough; faithfulness that changes lives, that changes hearts, comes from the willingness to change from within. Holiness means developing an inner congruity where our actions reflect our heart and our heart is molded by our actions. It is choice renewed every day to seek God in the everyday and (this is very important!) to see the image of God in every person we encounter every day. It is the choice to accept the grace to move from reactivity to attentiveness, from self-centeredness to companionship, from isolation to community. It is a life-long process of lining up our everyday choice and ethics with Jesus’ (and Moses’!) basic command to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor with everything we’ve got.
We are so tempted to turn this passage into a screed about perfectionism, or to make the Christian life so personal that it is reduced to a mere hobby. Perfectionism has a way of writing off other people or at the same time we must avoid a fake piety that only pumps up our egos and confirms our worst impulses. Instead, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of what it means to live within the reign of God’s peaceable kingdom.
I am humbled by the example of the martyred Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Soon before his assassination in 1980 by hit squad sent by his right wing government to silence him for his encouragement of the poor and his condemnation of the rich and powerful, saw this passage not as a placebo to quiet the yearnings of his oppressed flock, but as the basis, the cornerstone, for their quest for justice, dignity, and equity. To live lives grounded in the command to love God and love neighbor, means to accept the dignity and worth of the people God sent Jesus to liberate. If you listen, really listen, to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, then you will find that rather than passivity, Jesus wants our participation in every aspect of God’s redeeming work.
When the powers that be heard that Bishop Romero was conferring on the oppressed people of El Salvador the dignity that Jesus taught, and later confirmed in his passion, death, and resurrection, they sent soldiers to kill him at the altar during Mass.
A friend and colleague of Romero’s, a Presbyterian minister the Rev. Jorge Lava-Braud, looks at Jesus’ beatitudes through the lens of his native language, Spanish. He says:
Let me take advantage of my native language, Spanish (the language of God and the angels), to get more deeply into the meaning of beatitude. In Spanish the word is translated bienaventuranza, literally "good adventure to you." We all know that adventure means risk, the courage to defy the odds, the refusal to play it safe.
Listen, then, to how the Beatitudes would sound if we turn them into bienaventuranzas and if we paraphrase a bit:
Good adventure to you whose hearts are genuinely with the poor: you are under God's protective rule. Good adventure to you who are without power: the whole world shall be yours. Good adventure to you who are hungry and thirsty for justice: your cup will be filled. Good adventure to you who look for truth with singleness of heart: you shall see God. Good adventure to you who work for peace: you shall be called children of God. Good adventure to you who are persecuted for the sake of justice. You, too, are already under God's protective rule; rejoice, be very happy, when others say evil things about you falsely because you are mine. God is preparing a great reward for you. Don't be surprised, prophets have always been an endangered species.
I think the key to understanding this passage, perhaps Jesus’ hardest teaching on the Sermon on the Mount today, to really take part in “the good adventure.” Remember that for Jesus everything begins and ends with those first two commandments: “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Once we decide, really decide, to allow in God’s grace, to listen for God, and to live our lives in concert with God, then Jesus will cause us to confront ourselves: to replace the parts of us that always wants to win with a commitment to love; to look at the parts of us that always wants to be gratified, and to be present in simplicity; the parts of us that always want to be in charge and at the center of things, and to choose to live as servants; the parts of us that always are worried that we’ll be forgotten or written off or discounted, and rest in the knowledge that God is always with us. Confronting those parts of us requires honesty and a gentle heart, so that we may listen and look for God in our relationships, in the world around us, and in the people God gives us everyday. To discover that God’s love, holiness of living, and justice are all part of God’s “good adventure.”
Blessed are you! Bienaventuranza!