Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, February 16, 2020.
Three years ago, I had the privilege of being with you to celebrate and to preach when we last heard these lessons. I focused on the Gospel text: how are we supposed to hear it today? Some interpreters think Jesus is promulgating a new law, others, that he is encouraging us to pay attention to the intention of the law. I sided with the second group for a variety of reasons. If “do not be angry” is a law, then Jesus is in trouble, because he is periodically angry, even calling the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools.” Again, almost from the start teachers have had to warn the enthusiasts that “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away” is not to be taken literally. Again, the various destructive attempts of the church to make “no divorce” a law are evidence enough of the shortcomings of this strategy. So, as sermons go, not a bad one, and I hope it was helpful.
Today I want to approach the text differently, focusing on its immediate context in Matthew, because it’s really important that today’s lesson is not recording the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. Or out of Matthew’s, for that matter. Recall: Matthew devotes the first two chapters to Jesus’ birth, starting with a genealogy that highlights his link with Abraham and David, and includes the story of the Magi, who set Jerusalem on edge asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The third chapter introduces John the Baptist and closes with Jesus’ baptism with the heavenly voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Whatever else that voice is doing, it identifies Jesus as royal.
So—chapter four—we hear the temptation story, arguably about just what sort of king Jesus is going to be, about just what sort of kingdom Jesus is going to announce. Jesus returns to Galilee: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, the reign of God: throughout the Gospels Jesus tries to help us catch the vision. Here are two of the parables from later in Matthew:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Find that treasure, find that pearl, and so many issues sort themselves out. Returning to today’s Gospel, hearers often find the teaching absurdly demanding. And it is: if we haven’t encountered the treasure/the pearl. As we begin to catch the vision, the teaching approaches being self-evident.
Chapter 5, in which we find today’s Gospel, opens with the Beatitudes. Catch the vision of the kingdom, and you understand who is fortunate: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, etc. Or, take seriously Jesus’ declaration that these are the fortunate, and you get a sense of what sort of kingdom Jesus is proclaiming.
And then comes what may be the truly scary part. It’s one thing to hear Jesus say “I am the light of the world.” Wonderful: it’s on Jesus. But here, right after the Beatitudes: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” We’re on the critical path for the world’s healing, the world’s restoration: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
It’s important that that light shine, that God’s generous character be visible in the lives of those who bear God’s name. That, I think, is close to the heart of Jesus’ quarrel with the scribes and Pharisees, that they were spending too much energy seeking their individual purity, and way too little energy making God’s generosity visible.
Making God’s generosity visible: that may not be a bad way of summarizing what Jesus is getting at in today’s lesson. Handle your anger, handle your sexuality, in ways that make God’s generosity visible.
OK. Where does that leave us? I’ve read today’s lesson as flowing from Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. As we catch Jesus’ vision—and note that there’s no space between Jesus Himself and Jesus’ vision of the kingdom—texts like today’s lesson move from being absurdly demanding toward being self-evident.
But there’s where the rub is. Our vision of Jesus and the kingdom varies in clarity—to put it generously. But it’s fundamental. The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe put it this way:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will direct everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who 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.”
It’s easy to get the impression that all this—motioning around the sanctuary—is about what we’re supposed to do. And what we’re supposed to do is, of course, important. But that risks missing the point. The point is what this generous God has done, is doing, and will be doing, and that this generous God invites us to join in the quest that what pleases this God be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s worth protecting time for this reality to work on our imaginations, to mess with our imaginations. So we gather here, and at home we pray and open the Bible to catch and hold this vision, or, as Fr. Arrupe put it, to fall in love and stay in love. It’s a royal waste of time that our tradition cannot recommend highly enough.
But, since our bodies and spirits are intimately connected, it’s also true that as we follow Jesus’ teaching so that our bodies make God’s generosity visible, our spirits find it easier to catch and hold this vision of this God’s generous kingdom.
Let’s give John’s witnesses in the Revelation the last word:
17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
 From James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (almost) everything, p. 219.