So today a friend asked that I write something about the latest. I did. I am sure it isn’t anywhere close to what she is looking for. I decided that I would write this as a sermon, delivered from a figurative overturned police car to an assembled mob of indeterminate political views bent on taking “action” on what happened on Wednesday. The message is especially directed to people who call themselves Christians, but could apply to you too. I have no special knowledge but I did take a refresher on Matthew this afternoon at Yale. Thanks internet. I’m sure this will make everyone happy. Enjoy!
Today’s Gospel reading from the Episcopal lectionary is one everyone knows, even if your only exposure to it was in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Matthew 5 has the famous Sermon on the Mount, and these verses specifically are what have been called the Beatitudes – the “Blessed are” lines misheard in the crowd by Brian and his mother and wonderfully elaborated on by Eddie Izzard (he wonders when the meek will organize themselves to truly, “inherit the Earth”).
This text is perfect for the purpose I have today which is to advise everyone to go home, be with your families, turn off the television, radio, and especially the internet and maybe even all the lights. Breathe. Light a candle. Retreat.
The book of Matthew although first in the New Testament cannon was written after Mark, sometime in the 80s after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, aimed at an audience that saw what would be called Christianity as more of a way of being Jewish.
The Old Testament reading for today is from Exodus: the story of Moses being pulled from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter. Matthew is the only Gospel that has the story of Jesus’ mother and father fleeing to Egypt. This coming out of Egypt story in Matthew anchors the notion that Jesus is a new Moses, emerging like the prophet and law giver from Egypt to give a new interpretation of the law. In Matthew Jesus is often rabbinical in his comments, speaking like a Jewish scribe or teacher, instructing how to live.
The book is important today for Christians especially wondering how to navigate the current conflict in our country. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus arguably does not disengage Christianity from Jewish law, but intensifies its requirements. The old law tells us not to murder, but Jesus says, “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
Do you feel like killing someone right now? Hurting someone? Putting someone in jail? Lock her up? Lock him up?
The Jesus of Matthew says takes the idea of murder and intensifies it: don’t be angry or you’ll be judged just like you killed someone.
Well, c’mon now. What if someone punches me in the face? Can’t I hit them back? Maybe take them to court and bankrupt them?
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
How can we act this way in the face of the wrong done to us? Isn’t there anything we can do to make them pay? Shouldn’t we manifest some response?
Matthew elaborates on Mark’s Gospel story of the boat in the storm, having Jesus walk on the water toward the boat. When Peter realizes it is Jesus he wants to walk toward him and Jesus invites him onto the water. Peter succeeds for a while, and then promptly sinks.
“Save me!” cries Peter.
“You of little faith,” replies Jesus fishing him out of the water. “Why did you doubt?”
And you doubt that it can be done too. You doubt the success of following the basic precepts of this faith, embedded in our culture so deeply as to form some of the simplest elements of our expectations of what it means to be “good.” It shouldn’t be surprising that “the Rock” upon which the Church is built would sink in water. Peter always wanted to take action, but he lacked faith. We always want to do something, except the difficult thing.
The right and difficult thing to do now is retreat.
Turn it off. Go home. Be with your family if you can. Eat some lasagna or mashed potatoes. Or both.
Richard Wilhelm’s interpretation of Hexagram 6 in the I Ching reads in part,
Nine in the second place means:
One cannot engage in conflict;
One returns home, gives way.
The people of his town,
Three hundred households,
Remain free of guilt.
In a struggle with an enemy of superior strength, retreat is no disgrace. Timely withdrawal prevents bad consequences. If, out of a false sense of honor, a man allowed himself to be tempted into an unequal conflict, he would be drawing down disaster upon himself. In such a case a wise and conciliatory attitude benefits the whole community, which will then not be drawn into the conflict.
At least three times in Matthew Jesus retreats. In chapter 4 verse 12 when he learns that John the Baptist has been beheaded he retreats. He does not hide in fear or dishonor, but then “from that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
In chapter 12 verse 15, the establishment plots against Jesus to destroy him. Jesus retreats. He does not leave in ignominy or irresponsibly; “A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill.”
In chapter 14 he retreats again “by boat privately to a solitary place” and then, later, feeds the 5000.
“But what about you?” Jesus asked Peter. “Who do you say I am?”
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter responded.
At this point Jesus gives him authority over Earthly matters, promising that,
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
The standard view of this is that Jesus gives the church (whatever that may be defined as) power to make decisions until Christ returns triumphant.
If we take a different view, there is reciprocity here. Salvation doesn’t come unless we ask for it. Our forgiveness doesn’t come until we “forgive those that trespass against us.” And when we unleash violence, anger, and mayhem here, it will be loosed in heaven as well. If we retreat now it does not mean handing over anything, as with Jesus’ retreat it will mean an expansion of the effort. It will mean peace. And peace is the best demonstration of the good.
The last part of the Beatitudes says this:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Your job, as a Christian or as a human being, is not to try to find a way to align your grievance to make it some how “because of me.” That guy took my parking spot “because I love Jesus!” Those people did this, that, or the other thing wrong “because they’re against Jesus.” An whether you appeal to Jesus or not, we have become – whether Christian or not – a culture of grievance, trying to measure the wrong done to us and to others and to spend our time figuring out how everyone else should be punished and rewarded.
Go home. Stop posting. Stop scrolling. Be quiet. Breathe. Have faith. Listen to Jesus.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.