Deut 30:15-20; I Cor. 3:1-9; Matt 5:21-37
As of the past week, the impact of the new administration’s policies no longer only happen in far away places. They have come very close to us. 160 undocumented immigrants were detained in Los Angeles on Thursday. Churches and organizations that were awaiting Syrian refugees were put on hold. Businesses that employ or cater to banned populations saw themselves affected. The country is deeply divided as to how people feel about what’s happening. Some say, “It’s about time.” Others say, “How can a country that has grown and strengthened through immigration decide to simply shut its doors?”
In the second lesson, Paul confronts the church in Corinth with its divisions. People were dividing themselves according to loyalty to different leaders. Paul is clear about why the divisions exist: “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh.” Flash forward to today and ask if there is a spiritual reason for our divisions. I know that religion is different from politics, and that spirituality is different from religion. But I also know that they’re all connected. Even though we’re a pluralistic society, with people who follow many different religions, or no religion, I think Paul had the right idea: the root of our divisions is an immature spirituality that distorts both politics and religion. There are two ways to view religion and politics: they can be about right and wrong, and obedience to a set of laws; or they can be about healthy relationships - matters of the heart.
Jesus was very clear that for him religion is a matter of the heart. In today’s Gospel he said, “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” In Jesus’ mind the words of the law were being applied in a way that led to death. So he reminded people that the original reason for the law was to maintain healthy relationships between the people and God and among the people themselves. Even the ten commandments began with relationship: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Jesus’ new teaching showed people how to fulfill that original intention of the law. He offered a both/and perspective of life rather than an either/or. Instead of either law or heart, he said, Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
How surprising, then, that much of the history of institutional Christianity has focused on laws rather than heart; and not just any laws: laws that oppressed the very people it professed to serve. I just finished watching a Netflix series about Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun in the 17th century whose intellectual prowess far exceeded that of the men in her day. Even beyond the sickening way that women were treated, the series exposes the way the Christian message was contaminated by rules and laws whose application was determined by men who had been granted a dizzying degree of authority over people.
In the past month our nation has heard almost an exact reversal of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Today’s version goes something like this: “You have heard it said, ‘Give me your tired, your poor…’ but I say unto you, Build a wall against those who want to come; and ban those who are fleeing death and persecution.’ You have heard it said, ‘There shall be no discrimination based on religion,’ but I say to you, ‘We must keep Muslims out of our country and register those who are already here.’ You have heard it said, ‘We must support women’s reproductive health’, but I say to you, ‘We must stop funding institutions that provide services of reproductive health.’”
In this case, the old “you have heard it said” described a heart-shaped politics, and the new “but I say to you…” promotes a law-shaped politics. And as goes politics so goes religion - or, more accurately, as goes religion so goes politics. The religious justifications for the politics leading the country right now is very law-based. This is the situation that Jesus faced and to which he spoke: religion was all about laws, so he had to reintroduce a heart-shaped religion.
I say “re-introduce” because religion of the heart was a thread throughout the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus had grown up with. Today’s Old Testament texts invite us into a religion of the heart. Deut – “God will circumcise your heart…but if your heart turns away and you do not hear…you shall perish. Psalm – “Happy are they who seek God with all their hearts! I will thank you with an unfeigned heart.” The Apostle Paul also found that thread of Scripture that encourages heart-based religion of the Spirit: “No one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God…Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”
The authors of the Bible seemed to understand people’s inclination to turn religion into laws and God into a judge. They were very clear that the consequences were a matter of life and death. Moses said, “I have set before you life and death. Choose life.” Paul said, “If the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory… how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” So, why would anyone choose death over life? Because following rules is easier than discerning the Spirit. We have the sense of being in control of our lives when all we have to do follow the rules. I can do that. We like being able to point to certain sins that are more serious than others, especially when those aren’t the ones we’re tempted to do. Even if we decide to break the rules because it seems like we have to in order to survive, we’re still following the rule that says we must survive at all costs.
But to be open to what the Spirit of God might call us to do in each moment is more risky. To live at the level of the heart where we’re all on the same plane is risky because there’s no more us and them, and we can’t take comfort in being better than “them.” If anger is as serious as murder, then we’re all guilty, and we have to look at each other as brothers and sisters. To risk compassion because a refugee might end up being a terrorist is risky because we might be a victim. To live so fully that we risk death and loss because we believe in resurrection is overwhelmingly risky. The legal system may never see it that way; and society definitely has its opinions about who is better and worse. But Jesus is putting us on notice that those criteria don’t apply in the reign of God.
A couple of weeks ago we offered a retreat entitled Spiritual Preparation for Resistance. We explored an article about civil disobedience as prayer. It invited us to face the evil inside us as we act to resist evil in the world. It says, The power of evil is nothing more than the power of our cooperation with it. There is no evil exclusively out there, over us. When we cease cooperating with evil at its source in ourselves, it ceases to exist. I think that’s what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount. And, frankly, it’s what all four texts we read today are saying.
So are you ready to risk choosing life? Are you ready to face the anger inside and not just point to the murder outside? Are you ready to grow up and allow the Spirit to guide you by the law written on your heart rather than to passively obey the rules and judge yourself better than your neighbor? God has set before us life and death. Choose life.