Homily for 12 February 2023
Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20. Psalm 119:1-8. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. Matthew 5:21-37
In preparing for today I looked at the readings set in the revised common lectionary for the second Sunday before Lent. So far so good. That lectionary is used by most of the western churches, including the Church of England most of the time. Unfortunately, the CofE sometimes goes it alone and today is such a Sunday when it paddles its own canoe. By the time I realised my mistake I’d already chosen two hymns so I’ve stuck with the “wrong” readings. Though we’re out of step with the CofE, we’re in step with the bulk of Catholic Christendom. Got it?
In the epistle, Paul is cross with the Corinthians. He is berating some for saying they are followers of Apollos, and others for saying that they are followers of himself, Paul. They’re all in trouble because they can’t or won’t look beyond their noses and see that whether or not they follow Apollos or Paul they are all followers of Jesus. They choose not to see the wood for the trees. They choose not to take a big-picture view.
Now the gospel. It’s possible to read it as a series of bad-tempered, headmasterly warnings about what we should and shouldn’t do. Many people do indeed read it that way—as a list of instructions about keeping on the right side of an irascible sky pixie in order, I suppose, to get a more comfortable seat in the afterlife. If there is one.
But if you pay attention to the text, reading it several times with imagination, you will see that this interpretation is, again, failing to see the wood for the trees.
Let’s take a couple of examples.
I suspect most people would agree that it’s wrong to kill someone, except possibly some politicians. “I’ve got a little list of society offenders who might well be underground and never would be missed” but I doubt I’d have the guts to rub them out. So let’s assume killing is verboten. Unfortunately. Pretty easy to keep that rule, you’d think.
But, Jesus says, if you spread malicious gossip about somebody, you are in a very real sense killing them. If they become aware of the malicious gossip, they certainly feel deeply wounded. I doubt that there is a parish priest in the land that has not suffered from this sort of malice. I have, and even in retirement still do. So, Jesus says, it’s not enough to keep the rule in practice if you’re murdering people through gossip.
Here’s another example. A man who has sex with someone else’s partner is committing adultery and leading the other person similarly astray. Fair enough you might think. But Jesus says if you look lustfully at someone else’s partner, never mind that you’re only looking, you are guilty of committing adultery in your mind. If, sisters and brothers, you have ever looked at someone and thought “coo, I fancy him/her” you are, Jesus says, committing adultery in your mind.
So is there anyone who has never committed adultery? Show of hands not necessary.
The message is, as so often with Jesus, don’t you dare to condemn anyone else until you have done a thorough and exhaustive inventory of what’s going on in your own mind. Every act begins as a thought. Every harsh or mean act begins as a thought. Every compassionate act begins as a thought. Choose wisely.
These are but two examples. This passage is used by churchy jobsworths to make people feel guilty and miserable. In truth I think that Jesus is much more compassionate than that—he says “look guys, nobody is perfect—and certainly not those who think they’re the bees’ knees—since everybody falls foul of some regulation in their thoughts. So stop judging and be compassionate with others. Forgive them as you yourself would like to be forgiven”.
We often misinterpret scripture because we don’t appreciate middle-easern ways of thinking and speaking, and the way they use colourful metaphors and repeated ideas in order to hammer home their points. The suggestion that Jesus makes to tear out your eye is a good example: it’s not to be taken literally, but rather a dramatic way of saying “take a fresh look, try and see things differently from another point of view, be imaginative”.
I could go on but I shan’t. Instead I’ll summarize the gospel message by saying that since nobody is perfect we should all be compassionate with others who fall foul of rules and regulations. We all do.
You can choose to take a superficial and literal view of the text. You can choose to be merciless and cruel in enforcing rules and regulations. Or you can choose to look beyond the literal meaning—to look at the wood not the trees—and apply it with imagination displaying judgment and wisdom. It’s hard work to examine one’s thoughts and conscience. It’s easy to think superficially and have a list of “mechanical” rules about what to do. But that so often results in harsh injustice as individual circumstances are not taken into account. So be imaginative, be compassionate, be loving.
In the first reading the writer says we can choose either fire or water. To my mind, water is the easy option, colourless, inoffensive, comfortable. Making the right choice, the wise choice, the compassionate choice is like choosing fire. It’s uncomfortable, painful, destructive—but you can’t rebuild until you’ve destroyed. Jesus is fire. He cauterises our thoughts. He burns away our pretences. He makes our hard hearts malleable. He brings compassion, love, tenderness.
Let’s not be rule-bound jobsworths who In the words of the first hymn “make his love too narrow by false limits of our own, and … magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own”.
Instead, remember that “the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind”.
God is tenderness, and those that live in tenderness live in God and God lives in them.