What Do These Difficult Teachings Mean?
by Carol Howard Merritt
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:21-37
For Sunday, February 13, 2011: Year A - Epiphany 6
When I was in college, there was a woman in our dorm who suffered with bulimia. As a result, the common refrigerator became ground of major tension. I was on edge about it. I would go out on a date on Friday night and have a fabulous meal. I would carefully eat only half of my entree, so that I could enjoy the rest of it the next day for lunch. But when I would open up the door to the fridge anticipating the content of that doggy bag, the leftovers would be gone, along with anything else that might have been edible in the icebox. Then much drama would ensue.
Until one particular morning.
I woke up, went into the kitchen to fetch some milk for my coffee, and I gasped. Some one had taped a sign to the refrigerator. In bold red letters, it said: “If your hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF.” Then, carefully taped to the sign was a fierce serrated-edge knife.
It felt like a scene out of a horror movie, but it was a joke. Sort of. I attended a fundamentalist Bible school, and I must say that at that moment I began to question a literal interpretation of scripture. I mean, my leftovers were clearly not worth someone’s hand.
The hardest questions are not difficult to find in this Gospel lesson. In fact, it’s much more demanding to narrow our focus down to one onerous inquiry here. In a short sixteen verses, Jesus gives us a list of commands that could easily leave us without any appendages by the end of the day.
Is Jesus Joking?
Jesus raises the stakes on everything—both in how we are to behave and the punishments that we are to endure if we don’t live up to the new standards. They say don’t murder, but Jesus says don’t be angry with your brother or sister. They say don’t have an affair, but Jesus says don’t even look at her butt. And if you can’t stop looking at her butt, then you need to pluck out your eye. (Ladies, it looks like we’re off the hook here. At least until we get to this next section…) A divorced woman? You’re committing adultery.
Jesus goes on and on here, and even though I’m not a literalist any longer, I feel exhausted after reading it. How should we take these teachings? Is Jesus joking? Did Jesus get so enraptured as he was teaching that he just couldn’t stop the hyperbole?
The Hardest Question
When I read this, I tend to run to John Wesley’s teachings on law and grace. For Wesley, no human is able to attain the Hebrew Law. The Law is instructive in showing us just how imperfect we are, how much we are in need of God’s abiding grace, and how we ought to live into the law of love. Is this what Jesus is doing when Jesus makes the stakes even higher than the Hebrew Law?
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at TribalChurch.org.