I wrote last week that I hadn’t got a Post completed, because we were spending time with a very dear friend who was dying. Please now say a prayer for Calvin, whose funeral was last Friday. May his memory be eternal, and may God have mercy on us all.
For any of you who didn’t tune in two weeks ago: What’s missing, I think, is any reference to the teachings of Jesus. This was because the Creed, like almost all Orthodox theology, was written to defend the Faith from those who denied it. People weren’t denying Christ’s admonitions about how to live, so it wasn’t mentioned. Nevertheless I wish it were.
People used to “Ask Abby” for advice. Today – I just looked up a list – it’s “Ask Carolyn” or “Ask Miss Manners” or “Ask Sahaj” (I just discovered him), “Ask a Queer Chick” (! not advised) and many more.
I wonder how many people “Ask Jesus”? Note, however: He doesn’t advise; He commands.
We’re looking at the Lord’s directions for Christian living in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapters 5, 6 and 7, and it looks like this is going to take four weeks. No problem: October in the Church year has no great feasts or fasts – a good time to have a series of some sort.
Last time I began with grand plans to cover chapter 5 in one Post. In reality we got no farther than the first twelve verses, the Beatitudes. I promised this week to move faster. Whether I lied or not, you are about to discover.
Now, please get out your Bible. I’ll not provide all the texts here, but will only comment on them. Keep in mind that this is a collection of Christ’s teachings. I would guess that He taught them many times in many places and in many ways. Mark and Luke also present them in somewhat different and more concentrated form. Chapters and books have been written about almost every verse, so this will be only a quick once-over. I think the best place to find a somewhat longer and excellent exegesis is in the footnotes of The New Testament Orthodox Study Bible.
Matthew 5:13-16. Christ gives us two images about a Christian’s role in the world.
1 “You are the salt of the earth”. * Salt is a preservative. Christianity preserves the true Way of life, given to man and woman in Eden. Those who follow Christ preserve the new true Covenant of God. Also, salt brings out flavor. The purpose for each Christian should be to turn life into Life. There should be no such thing as a dull Christian. On his deathbed, Emperor Julian (who had tried unsuccessfully to re-establish paganism) said “You have triumphed, O pale Galilean.” He didn’t get it.
- Salt was so highly valued in the Roman world that soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. After all these centuries, we still use the expression “he’s not worth his salt”.
2 “You are the light of the world.” Christ used the same image for Himself: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” John 8:12
Our role as members of the Body of Christ is to reflect His light and show the world the way Home through this darkness. Therefore “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”. But, but… I thought we were commanded (in Matthew 6) to do our charitable deeds in secret. (We’ll come to that next time.)
Matthew 5:17-20. Christ came not to destroy the Old Testament Law but to fulfill it: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and pharisee, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Now it gets difficult, for Christ is commanding us to go beyond just obeying the letter of the Law and go for its inner meaning.
By the way, in what now follows consider how people must have reacted. Jesus says, “The Law [given by God to Moses] says ‘XXX’, but I say to you: ‘XXX’.” (What if your pastor gave a sermon “correcting” Jesus?) “Who does this man think he is? God?”
Matthew 5:21-26. “Of old it was said ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you ‘Whoever is angry with his brother without cause * shall be in danger of the judgment… whoever says ‘You fool’ shall be in danger of hell fire”. This seems clear enough. Christ goes to the heart of the matter: Anger cannot be legislated against, but it is the cause of murder and violence. Therefore deal with the root cause before it erupts. And if you don’t, it will destroy your spirit from the inside.
- Jesus says there may be justifiable causes for anger. What might they be? (Send in a comment at the bottom of this Post.)
“If anyone has something against you, then before you lay your gift on the altar, go your way. First be reconciled with your brother, then come and offer your gift.”
One Sunday during the Great Entrance, Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, remembered a priest with whom he was at odds. So he left the church, located and made up with the priest (and left the choir to sing all that time, I guess?), then returned, completed the Entrance and laid the Holy Gifts on the altar.
The moral: When we come to the Divine Liturgy, if we have not at least tried to be at peace with everyone *, or at least prayed God to give you the strength to try, then do not enter in spirit with the Great Entrance, and do not receive Holy Communion.
- There may be people who are not willing to be at peace with us. We can’t control that.
Now it gets interesting. The Old Testament Law says “‘Do not commit adultery’, but I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
A high school friend of mine said: “Does that mean if you’ve already lusted, you may as well just go ahead and do it?” The answer is NO.
The Lord expressed this in terms of male responsibility. Does that get women off the hook? Can women lust? I can’t say. I’m not a woman.
Lest I misunderstand this, let me quote The Orthodox Study Bible: “The issue here is lust, not simply the mutual attraction of men and women. Sin does not come out of nature, but out of internal self-indulgence. He who feasts on lust within himself * brings sin into his heart through his thoughts. (Thoughts which enter the mind involuntarily are temptations, not sins. They become sins only when they are held onto and entertained.”
Nor does a man commit lust simply by enjoying looking at lovely women without evil intention, whether live or in art. I doubt that many guys lust after the Venus de Milo.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out… if you right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Better that than your “whole body be cast into hell”. It’s said that the early Christian philosopher Origen was immensely and incessantly tempted by lust, and took this imagery literally, so he, uh.. cut off… you can see where this is heading. No! No! Christ is speaking figuratively. The point: Any sin we cling to can take us to hell – can fester within us and ultimately destroy our soul.
In the Mosaic Law, divorce was permitted – though the laws regarding it were complex, especially regarding the rights of a divorced woman. Now Christ commands: “Whoever divorces his wife, except on grounds of unchastity, commits adultery”. Some Christian denominations took this literally. The independent Church of England began when the Pope refused to bend Roman Catholic rules and permit King Henry VIII a divorce. As late as 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated when his Church of England refused to allow him to marry a divorced woman. (My, how times do change!) The Roman Catholic Church, to this day, does not permit divorce, but often permits “annulments” of marriages in retrospect: using what happens many years later to show that the marriage was not legal in the first place. To Orthodox this often looks rather like a subterfuge.
As with Christ’s directions above in verses 29-30, the Orthodox Church takes Christ’s words here not as a legal command, but as as His intention. (I think this is why Orthodox have no marriage “vows”.) By allowing the exception of adultery, our Lord shows that the marriage bond is not unbreakable. The Orthodox Church believes that marriages can die, can be killed. Jesus said there is only one unforgivable sin, and divorce is not it. Therefore (only with the Church’s blessing) we allow one divorce and remarriage – and in extremely rare cases yet another time. (But that’s it. If you can’t make it in three times, there’s no point in trying again. You don’t have a vocation to be married.)
In First Century Judaism, the practice had arisen that if you swore by “this” you were obliged to keep your promise, but if you swore by “that” you were not bound by it. This was very complex, and people used it to weasel out of their promises and obligations. Christ condemned the whole rotten business. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” Always say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Does this remind you of anything today? For example, an American president, under oath before a Congressional committee regarding a sexual affair * : “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. … if ‘is’ means ‘is and never has been’, …that is one thing. If it means ‘there is none’, that was a completely true statement. …” I give this only as an example, not to score a political point. This goes on frequently in our American political and legal system.
- ….which seemed to me a very peculiar way of dealing with it. The man needed a priest, not a lawyer.
This passage gives other examples of how Christians are to go beyond the letter of the Law.
“You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say to you: ‘Do not resist an evil person. Whoever slaps your right cheek, turn to him the other.’” I paraphrase: If anyone wants to take away your coat, give him your shirt as well. “If anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him two. Give to whoever asks you, and do not turn away from whoever wants to borrow from you.”
Again, Christ obviously is not giving legal prescriptions here. Taken legally, it would apply only to cheeks. So if somebody punched you one, would you be free to knock his block off? He didn’t disallow that, did He? Likewise, our Lord is not prescribing a law about giving. If a drug user asks you for money which clearly he is going to spend on more drugs, it would be wrong to give and support him in his addiction. The Lord is telling us to take two general attitudes: 1 To give generously of what we have, and 2 We are forbidden to get even.
Why? Because if we repay evil with more evil, who wins? Not God, not you, but only Satan. Saint Paul later summed it up beautifully: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.’” Therefore, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:19-21
Now He comes at it from another angle.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
So… must we do good to to Russia, and help Vladimir Putin destroy Ukraine? Of course not. There is some practical political application to what Christ says here – what I think is now called “soft diplomacy”. However, Jesus is not speaking here chiefly about how to build a better world. He is calling each of us to be “sons of your Father in Heaven, for He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” We are to pour out His love not only on those who love us, but on everyone.
Why? So we will get ahead in this world? Sometimes this injunction “works” for us, and we “win friends and influence people”. I can think of instances in my life when doing good to people who have hurt me has won their friendship again and, more importantly, brought them back to the Church. Sometimes this took many years, even for the opportunity to arise.
I can also think of a number of times when doing good to people has been a complete flop, has even got me into trouble. (You want some examples? No, sorry.)
Overall, Christ’s directions for good living are what some call “the ethics of Heaven”. Keeping these commands here prepares, shapes us in how to be citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven, so we’ll have some idea how to behave when we get there, in that Land where love truly is the law, Heaven where “Thy will is done”, even if it is not yet here “on earth”.
These are training in how we can become “perfect just as your Father in Heaven is perfect”. Hear it again: We are to become like God. That’s what God plans for each of us. That is what Christ came to earth to accomplish.
Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 are a sort of “primary school” instruction manual to get us started. If we learn all this, we will still have a long way to go before that Day when we will “graduate” and move out into the Real World. Then we “shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” 1 John 3:2
But we’re not ready for that yet.
Next Week: A Homily delivered at the funeral of a friend
Week after next: We’ll continue this series with Matthew chapter 6.