Sunday, February 16, 2014
Passing the Test of Winter
So how’s your winter going? Have you had enough snow yet? Last Friday morning, my patience for winter simply ran out. If winter is a test, I failed. I gave up the ghost. I was doing something very simple, I thought. Our driveway had been plowed on Thursday in the afternoon window of calm during the recent storm. Yet Thursday evening produced another foot of snow, along with a coating of ice. But I was in a hurry (and I had tests to give on Friday). I ignored the recent snowfall and was attempting to drive to work rather than respecting this winter season by walking and waiting for Mr. Plow later in the day. I live on a ridge just past Main Street in town, and we have a long driveway with a steep incline and turning angles at certain points. To make a long story short, I didn’t make it up the driveway; the car slowed at the major incline, then stopped, then the car and I started moving backward, gaining speed in the wrong direction. Braking was no help at all. I was in a full, tragic backward slide, and I found myself laughing as I rolled off the road backward into a snow bank. Good thinking. However, the early morning chaos did have some bright spots. I missed the creek that runs next to our driveway. That was good, though it took me an hour to dig my car out of the snow bank. I also made it to A block to give a test. My students were so happy, so pleased with it. But in the moment when forward motion stopped, I failed winter. I got a 1.0 U for the season. But it’s ok, I’m at peace, because I’m from California. I get extra time. I don’t want extended time with winter, but I’ve got it.
Winter is a struggle. Small and ordinary tasks become challenging. And when things can’t get any worse, we get just about the most difficult—and certainly the most unpleasant--gospel reading from Matthew. Let me start with the easiest part of this hard teaching from Matthew, which is the question of divorce: “”It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’”
Yes, that will be the easy part this morning. Then we’ll get to the truly crazy talk: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”
And so, on the question of divorce, Jesus is invoking the body of law and custom, based in Scripture, that is already established, already working, already in place, but he isn’t happy with it. At the time of Jesus, both divorce and polygamy were allowed by legal custom. Polygamy would not be completely eliminated for another seven hundred years, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. Jesus never addresses the practice in his moral teaching.
Both Jesus and his listeners know that Moses allowed men to divorce their wives for some indecency, usually thought to be adultery. Let me clarify this point; men were allowed to divorce their wives. Women held no such right. This was the powerful domain of male privilege over women; and adultery itself was understood as a violation of the property rights of men. Women who were divorced were literally put out into the streets, completely vulnerable to humiliation, exploitation, crime, and prostitution. They were sometimes beaten; sometimes they were killed. If their relatives did not take them in, their days were usually numbered.
What Jesus is pointing out is that the rules, as they are, are not actually just or truly moral. They are the lowest possible standard of permissible conduct. It is always a limited exercise to use the terms liberal and conservative with the person of Jesus. But when it came to the Law and legalistic definitions, Jesus is usually to the left of even the most liberal followers of the Law. In that sense, he was an extreme liberal. Jesus is mostly disinterested in a legalistic religion whereby the righteous and wicked are easily distinguished from each other.
Rabbi Hillel, a very popular Jewish teacher, was one of the most liberal teachers of his day, and Jesus usually went further than even Hillel was willing to go in matters of law and conventional morality. On the question of divorce, Rabbi Hillel allowed for it, even when there was no adultery in the dispute. Wives could be divorced for complaints, sometimes as trivial as their cooking. On the other hand, at the right wing end of the spectrum, Rabbi Shammai was much more conservative in his interpretations. But he still respected the precedent established by Moses and Deuteronomy in the Torah.
On this strange occasion, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lands to the right of Rabbi Shammai, and he goes even further in Mark. What in the world is happening here? Jesus is actually eliminating the moral standard of Deuteronomy (or at least endangering it), which Hillel, Shammai, and the Pharisees questioning and listening to Jesus, all abide by. In his answer, Jesus is not really providing any legal grounds for divorce. Rather, he is removing it. In Mark, this is more explicit. He is pulling the rug out from underneath all of them. There are scholars before me who have softened Jesus’s very hard teaching by showing how he is standing up for women; how he is subtly decrying their exploitation by a privileged male society. This interpretation is absolutely fair, even just. But it isn’t the whole story.
Jesus seems to be referring to an unwritten ideal; and he knows it when he sees it. Maybe we know it when we see it too. I think we do; a new level of respect between men and women, parents and children, teachers and students. But it’s not in the Torah. It’s not in the school handbook. The words would be too blinding, too beautiful. The best of what we can be can never be written down in a simple code of rules, or even in the most significant legal interpretation of precedent. We have the rules we do because of our hardness of heart. The precedent of polygamy would one day be reversed because of what God has written in our hearts. The precedent of women as property would one day be rejected for its poverty of spirit and malignant design. Men and women were created equally in God’s image. The precedent of slavery in the Bible would one day be rightly considered as one of the worst abominations of all. Every human being is a child of God—a radical equality of all humankind. On earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus doesn’t turn to a list of rules and precedents to figure out the right thing to do next, in the messy world of real life between men and women. He turns to his own heart. And he turns to God. A list of rules doesn’t really tell you how to behave; that is, it doesn’t tell you how to find the very best in yourself. The minimum requirements for a course reflect nothing of the true invitation for your mind to explore the world, even the universe itself. Too often the lowest standards shape us, and our characters.
We often give the least expected of us to those who matter the most.
Ok, I think I get the spirit of this teaching.
So let’s take on the really hard part.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away...”
Let me first point out that this teaching occurs only in Matthew, here in the Sermon on the Mount. On a literal level, this is absurd talk, even crazy. But in actual practice, the church seems to recognize it for what it is: hyperbole. Virtually no one in the history of Christendom has followed this teaching, and for that I am immensely thankful. There is no tradition of self mutilation, and I will not go into detail about the unfortunate exceptions. Jesus is not speaking literally, but he is taking a limited way of thinking to a logical extreme. The real question is why. Similar to the question of divorce, Jesus is taking a rules-based righteousness to a logical extreme. He is taking things to the absurd, intentionally. Matthew was writing for a largely Jewish audience who believed the Law and the Purity Codes established righteousness before God. Moral perfection was even thought possible. Jesus seems to be saying that these rules aren’t enough. Just look at the terrible things that go through your mind, even if your actions are impeccable. It is certainly possible to follow the rules in the school handbook and not necessarily be a good person. This deconstruction of righteousness would have surprised Jesus’s listeners, and maybe it is a surprise to you as well this morning. Jesus also points out that righteous people are often the most dangerous because they lack self awareness, humility, and, most importantly, compassion. Jesus invokes an unwritten ideal, the Spirit of the Law. Through the hyperbole of this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, the absurd can then become logical: with the understanding that you are unable to perfect yourself morally on your own. It is actually impossible. Improve yourself morally, yes. Perfect, no. If you think you can, there is really no room for God. There is no need for God; you have shut God out in your righteousness. Your outward actions are only the beginning, and righteousness is impossible by this perfect standard: that the thought and the deed are one and the same. No one can be righteous before such a premise. The conclusion then: we need help. We need God. We need to take a leap of faith.
Knowing you cannot perfect yourself may sound depressing, but I think Jesus intended just the opposite. Instead Jesus found this moment extremely creative, even life giving. It means you have to ask for help. Usually help comes to me against my will. The first time I was forced to see a counselor, a psychologist, was at the age of eighteen, a long time ago. I was a cadet at the United States Military Academy, West Point, at the time. In high school, I had been a high achiever. I wasn’t aware that I had lots or problems and issues. But at West Point, I was a head case, and a rebel. To my great surprise, I loved seeing the counselor in my mandatory sessions. I could walk around my life, my problems, in a way that I never imagined on my own. The counselor, a young woman also from California, was the most interesting person I met at West Point. She was also funny…and pretty, so that was a plus at West Point. I was able to begin to understand the secrets I was keeping from myself, and also to find some of my deepest values, ones I never knew I had. With the counselor, I was in the eye of the hurricane. It was total calm in her office—eerie and beautiful, with raging storms just outside the door. On one level, it was one of the worst moments in my life. But now I see how immensely creative it was, and how my true vocation was being born in what wasn’t working. I can look back on myself with compassion, and now even pride. And I can see others with compassion. Since that experience, every time I have asked for help (with assorted psychiatrists, spiritual directors, gurus, and shamans) my life has changed dramatically, always for the good.
If asking for help from the ordinary people around me can do so much, just imagine what the love of God can do. Just imagine, Jesus is saying.
So, in closing this morning, I would simply encourage you, in the days and weeks before the break, to be more aware of the people around you; and what they have to teach you, the ways in which they even complete you. How they make you whole. We are wounded by each other, but we are also healed. Even our best students need help, and not necessarily the academic kind. February is a time when the good and the bad are very close to each other. I wouldn’t try to separate them, like winter and spring they need each other. The blossoms of spring—the blossoms of your new life--are growing even now, just under the snow. With my extra time, I just might pass the test of New England winter. And so can you.