Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Does Sarcasm Become Jesus?

Being as I am wholly associated with a denomination that can be incredibly unforgiving of rudeness (or of choosing the wrong fork at dinner), the title question seems to be a no-brainer. Surely Jesus would never want to condone a form of humor that calls attention to the foibles of its audience. Why even ask the question? Except....

Like many preachers, I began last week's sermon by reading the lessons. For those of you in non-lectionary churches, you need to know that we have assigned sets of lessons for each week, last week being the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. The value of this is that we do not get to pass over those biblical passages that are difficult for us. Sooner or later, they come around, and we are forced to wrestle with the difficult areas of our own understanding.

Last week was one of those weeks. The passage was Matthew 5:21-37. Besides including the stuff about looking at women with lust in our hearts, there is that piece, smack in the middle of the reading, about cutting out your eye or cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin.

Now, conservative evangelicals love this passage. It actually uses the words lust, adultery, sin, and hell. What could be better? Just take out that floppy Bible to wave around and go to town! Today is the day for that altar call you wanted to have to make sure everyone gets saved from the depravity of lust leading them to hell. Never mind the fact that the passage has nothing to do with being saved, and the hell reference is for not being reconciled with your brother or sister.

Liberals do everything in their power to say that Jesus' words were not to be take literally. Of course Jesus does not want you to cut off your hand. No, Jesus is merely trying to point out how important this is. And, by the way, in this version, the whole passage is really about how obedience to God is impossible without God's unearned grace, which, we receive in baptism.

Did you notice how both sides just ended up at essentially the same place? Whether it is an altar call or a declaration of the saving effects of baptism, they have diverted from Jesus' point, which was about a faithful life.

Just prior to this passage, Jesus was talking about how he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. What we have here is his take on a few of the laws and what they were intended to do. It's not enough to not commit murder; you need to treat your brother and sister well and repair any enmity between you when it occurs. It is not enough to tell the truth; you should keep any vows you make (including wedding vows), and you should be so trustworthy that you do not need to swear oaths because people will know that you will do what you say you will do.

And in between those two is the one about not lusting in your heart, followed by the cutting of body parts. Here's the thing. Most of the time, people who refer to the eye and hand passage remove it from the lust passage (Let's face it; either one of those gives you plenty to work with, right?). But they really should be looked at together. Why would Jesus (or at least Matthew) put them back to back?

Have you ever really thought about what it means to say "If your eye causes you to sin..." Really? Your eye causes you to sin. Your eye or your hand is some independent agent committing atrocities apart from the rest of you? I don't think so!
Don't try telling the judge "My hand stole the money, not me." Does Jesus suddenly sound a bit sarcastic? You betcha!

Surely at least part of Jesus' point was to remind us that we have agency over what our various body parts do (apart from an occasional unplanned belch, or...well, you get the idea!). Your hand does not cause you to sin. If anything, you cause your hand to sin. The eye does not commit lust in your heart. It sees the object of lust, and you take it from there.

In other words, take some responsibility for what you do, and begin to take steps to change your life. Now, the liberal theologians can come in and remind us of Paul's understanding of sin and grace. And the conservatives can remind us that what we do has real consequences (I'll leave the bumpy road to a theology of hell for another day.). In the meantime, I'll take Jesus' words to remind me that the letter of the law is not even hardly the point.

Note: All of you trying to get the 10 commandments placed on the courtroom walls, please stop it. You are reinforcing the opposite of what Jesus tried to teach. And the fact that you don't even realize it should tell you to rethink this one.

And me? Well, I have reconciled with an old friend already this week, so I am trying my best to live Jesus' words. But mostly, I am laughing at Jesus' joke. Now, if my mouth would just stop eating fattening foods....

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