Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 16th February 2014
16 February 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Precentor
This morning’s Gospel is an extraordinary example of Jesus’s use of rhetoric within the rabbinical tradition of interpretation. He quotes passages which would have been known to every single one of his hearers and in a mastery of focussed oratory encourages them to get beyond the teaching in which they have been happily languishing. St John Chrysostom, in a homily on this passage, writes, 'Jesus spoke much like a teacher to a lazy student: "Don’t you know how much time you have spent learning syllables?... You have spent enough time on these lessons. It is now time to press on to lessons higher than these."'
As elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus is a critic of the status quo which has ceased to genuinely keep people in right relationship with God and neighbour. The Law – or at least peoples’ interpretation of it – has risked becoming an idol, in which with a nod and a wink, people could literally get away with murder. But in each one of these examples of Jesus’s rhetorical dealing with ethical teaching, the point is, that legalism can be an excuse for avoiding the heart of the matter: impressive formulae may linger under supposedly sophisticated veneers, but ultimately they just reveal a lack of integrity. Law, Jesus teaches, must be the servant of Gospel, not the other way round. And law which binds people up either in false luxury and self-certainty, or in situations where they are less than human can be no servant of Christ’s Good News. This is as true of Canon Law as it is of the law of the land, and it is equally true of all the little rules we dream up as human communities to try to buffer ourselves against our fears and insecurities. Law must be the servant of Gospel; our rules must be the servants of Christ’s Good News.
The verses at the heart of this Gospel, though, do not at first sound like particularly good news! They would also have shocked Jesus’s original hearers. 'If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out… if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.' For us today, this is particularly shocking in a world where punishment by amputation for supposedly religious reasons is still not unknown. But, once again, we must see Jesus here as classically rhetorical firebrand rabbi in full flow! This is a call to integrity and responsibility. The emphasis is on how we deal with our own lives before making judgements on others. Immediately after this Gospel, indeed in the next verse, Jesus overturns the old teaching about an eye for an eye – as Ghandi famously put it, 'An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.' Living ethically, living justly, is about learning to take responsibility and not to take revenge.
It is easy for most of us to hear this teaching, with particular examples, and to think it must apply to someone else. Hannah Arendt the German Jewish philosopher who was imprisoned and then escaped from captivity in Vichy France witnessed the end of the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann claimed simply to have been following orders. Arendt later declared, that 'The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.' The Christian life is a call to make our minds up, which is why Jesus insists that our 'yes' must be a real yes, and a 'no' must be a real no. St Paul is clearly aware of this Jesus tradition which he later theologises in his writings to the Corinthians. Our own 'yes' to God and to God’s promises is a response to God’s fundamental 'yes' to us in the coming of Christ. So what about all that dismemberment? Well, Within a few chapters of this gospel, Jesus has healed those who are blind and a man with a withered hand. The proximity of these stories cannot have been lost on those who first new these gospel texts, long before they were structured in chapters and verses. The sweep of Jesus teaching is about integrity and wholeness – hence the flourish, 'better to lose one bit of your body than for the whole thing to be destroyed!' So, this is not about a Taliban or indeed puritanical call to create a community of the self-satisfied pure; that mythical community of the perfect; rather it is Jesus authoritative summons to integrity, and a stark realisation that the choices we make in our lives are social , that they effect others. When Jesus talks about plucking out eyes and chopping off hands, he doesn’t put this into a kind of legislative programme – it’s not a sentence that someone else will carry out – rather, he says, cut it off yourself, take responsibility. Stop blaming everyone else. Do something about it.
The moral programme which Jesus appears to be discussing here, has resonances in every part of our lives. Chrysostom taught that these two 'amputation' sayings were really about spiritual pruning – pruning of contemplation (represented by the eye) and pruning of action (represented by the hand). Do not be tempted by an atomised life, lives which do not join up ethics and prayer, because the ultimate freedom will be found in integrity. When we embrace this integrity, when we risk living lives of responsibility and reconciliation, we will find that we are not dis-membered. Rather we are re-membered. That metaphorically Christ has healed all those withered hands, and plucked out eyes.
The spread-out nature of our contemporary world sometimes lures us into thinking that our actions and thoughts don’t really affect others. We’ve seen this in banking, in public life, in discussions about immigration reform, and defence policy. But what about those small things: the jealous thoughts, the anger which bubbles up, the selfishness to which we are all tempted? St Paul is very clear in today's Epistle that these too, profoundly effect how we are with others and how we are in our spiritual lives. Each example of moral failure Christ gives in today’s Gospel relates to an individual: murder, debt, adultery, oaths. Hannah Arendt was very clear that it is only in the presence of another person that we can truly know forgiveness she wrote '[for forgiveneness]… we are dependant on others, to whom we appear in a distinctiveness which we ourselves are unable to perceive. Closed within ourselves, we would never be able to forgive ourselves any failing or transgression because we would lack the experience of the person for the sake of whom one can forgive.' Christ is that ultimate other. But the search for integrity, the journey towards being re-membered also involves all those among whom we live: it is both a radically private and a radically social journey, which is shaped by what and whom we say 'Yes' to. Not to Paul or Apollos, Paul says to the Corinthians – choose Christ. The love which is the context of all our loves, all our decisions, is what ultimately will heal us, will heal all those plucked out eyes and withered hands. The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe put it like this:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.