Teach me the Way
The Scripture texts for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Last year in the seminary choir, we sang the anthem “Teach Me, O Lord,” which repeats over and over again in beautiful harmony the first verse of our Psalm today. “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” As I studied our readings for today, this song played in my mind, particularly the “Teach me” part. The psalm itself is a plea to God for understanding, a plea made with sincere yearning to keep God’s law. Don’t we know the laws? We know we’re supposed to love our God and our neighbor, right? But notice the psalm doesn’t say “Teach me your statues.” It says, “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes.” This psalmist knows I need help keeping the commandments because I cannot stay the course. Maybe it would help if I understood why. My sense of self or my humanity tends to get in the way and botch perfectly fine commandments. Like the psalmist, I pray: God, grant me teachers to understand your way. Help me understand how and why I do this that you would have me do.
We need to be careful what we ask for because God has a tendency to show up as soon as we are on board to do God’s work.
In the Gospel today, like last week, Matthew brings us to Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is giving us laws, but these laws aren’t like the ones in Leviticus given just for the priests who were the only ones able to relate directly to God.
Jesus’ statutes start with the traditional Jewish laws, and then he adds “but I say . . ..” No longer is it “eye for an eye,” but they are to turn the other cheek. The people could go to court and seek compensation from the judge for having been insulted with a slap, but Jesus says, “No.” If forced to go a mile, they are to “go also the second mile.” The Roman army could force peasants into service, typically carrying their baggage, and Jesus says, “Do it.” Jesus is saying to the crowd not to seek retribution, to give all they have, and to go the extra mile.
Imagine your car being keyed and not pressing charges, giving all your clothes to the homeless man by the interstate (and money every time he holds up a sign), or being a prisoner of war, digging not one ditch but two without being ordered. These are not our ways. It’s even hard to imagine because we do not live in a society that truly lives into the commandment to love our neighbor and to take care of the poor, and we haven’t, I hope, been prisoner’s of war or lived in a place with an oppressive regime. What Jesus is saying just seems crazy, and I’m sure the crowd thought so, too. But what he says still pricks at our hearts: our yearning is kindled.
Jesus’ laws weren’t new. He re-interpreted the same old laws. While the commands might seem radically different, the root is still the same, the core value still there. Because the Levites got caught up in scrupulosity, being particular about the fine details of the law, Jesus provides another angle that might get us more directly to the point. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.” The “you” here is plural; he’s talking to all of us. Jesus levels the playing field; there is none of the good-bad split, the wheat and the chaff, us and them. God’s children are all equally subject to the sun and the rain, and we are all to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies. Jesus tells us what we are to do—however abstract and impossible it may seem. Show mercy, charity, honesty, integrity, and love, but not as humans. How does God expect us to do this? We are merely human. Paul made clear that whatever we think we own, whatever we think we control—it’s all God’s. Paul calls us out on our high esteem of human wisdom. “Foolishness,” he calls it. Why would we put ourselves before God? Only if we choose the way of holiness, to live into God’s will, might we have a chance at the perfection Jesus speaks of. “Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t mean “perfect” in the sense of being without flaw. Jesus tells us what to do and how to do it, not like God but as God. Be perfect. We are to be. We are to exist in a nature that is God’s alone, and God’s perfection covers a lot of ground—all of it, actually. If we want to go forward on the path according to God’s laws, we have to align our will, our being, with God, starting with our inmost desires. We can save ourselves a lot of frustration if we realize that what we desire unity in God. Even better is when we understand that God desires our reunion as well. Our perfection resides in God. God is the image we were created out of. We deeply desire completion, another interpretation of perfection, which can only be fulfilled through God, whose very nature is love. If God’s nature is love, then our way to God is love. Love is what we do, how we do it, and why. Jesus teaches us this love.
We might recall that the disciples were followers of Christ. Jesus often goes before them, not calling them to a place where he was not willing to go himself. Likewise, Jesus isn’t telling the crowd to do anything he would not do himself. We know that he faces brutal evil unto death. He does not resist the evildoers. But not resisting evildoers does not mean that we condone evil. I tell my children that I love them forever, but at certain moments I do not like what they choose to do, how they choose to behave. A battered woman will seek refuge in a shelter and may be reluctant to give the identity of her abuser, if she ever does. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister and seminary professor who did not conform to the Nazi regime, and he was imprisoned and ultimately executed in a camp. Bonhoeffer would not condone the evil being done, but he is said to have greeted his wardens cheerfully, recognizing their human dignity even if they did not do the same for others. Christ bore the cross and asked forgiveness for his crucifiers. Do we realize that when we hurt another, the harm we inflict is equally upon ourselves? When we retaliate with vengeance, whether it is proportionate or not, we perpetuate the cycle of violence, and it will make its way back to us. We are to live into Jesus’ statutes to break the cycle of violence, of evil, and get back on our path to God. The way of God’s statutes is the path to holiness, to perfection, to wholeness. As God loves all, so are we called to embrace all in love. Breaking the cycle of violence and hatred is one of our lifelong challenges.
We are neither Levite nor among the crowd at Jesus’ sermon, but we still yearn to live God’s commandments. We pray to walk in God’s will and delight in God’s way, and this means we have a hint of understanding. The Word is teaching us. The way of God is the way of love. It’s not sentimental gobbledygook. The love of God is real. Real enough to care for those in need with coats and food and medical care. Real enough to move beyond self-centeredness to give time, one of our most precious commodities, to worship God. Real enough to transform oppression into freedom. Real enough to answer violence with mercy. These are all possible because God is real.
In May of 2011, NPR aired an interview on their StoryCorps, a “project that records conversations between loved ones and friends.” The transcript continues:
“As a teenager, Oshea Israel was involved with gangs and drugs. One night at a party, he got into a fight with another boy and killed him.” After “serving his prison sentence for murder, he came to StoryCorps with Mary Johnson, the mother of the boy he killed.”
Mary: “You and I met at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remember form court—where I wanted to go over and hurt you. But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.”
Oshea: “And he became human to me. You know, where I admitted to you, it was like, okay, this guy is real. And then when it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. And the initial thing to do was just try to hold you up as best I can, just hug you like I would my own mother, you know.”
Mary: “After you left the room, I began to say, I just hugged the man that murdered my son. And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years, for you—I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.”
Oshea: “As far as a receiver in forgiveness from you, sometimes I still don’t know how to take it because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet. It’s something that I’m learning from you. I won’t say that I have learned yet because it’s still a process that I’m going through.”
Mary: “I treat you as I would treat my son. And our relationship is beyond belief. We live next door to one another.”
And they laugh about the everyday nature of their mother-adult son relationship.
Oshea: “I find those things funny because this is a relationship with a mother, for real.”
“Well, my natural son is no longer here,” Mary says. “I didn’t see him graduate. Now you’re going to college. I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate. I didn’t see him get married. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to experience that with you.”
“Just to hear you say those things and to be in my life in the manner which you are, is my motivation,” replies Oshea. “It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path. You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it, despite how much pain I caused you—it’s amazing.”
He concludes saying, “I love you, lady,” and she replies, “I love you, too, son.”
The nature of God is love. The way of God is love. There is no way we can reach out to all of our neighbors in love without God’s grace. That’s the amazing part. It is God’s grace that, as the prayer book says, “forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills,” and it is because of this grace that we can resist the evildoer and be holy, perfect, merciful, and all-embracing. Mary and Oshea show us what redemption looks like in one moment. They, too, are teachers of God’s way. We all probably have moments of genuine loving-kindness, unconditional compassionate acts done for love’s sake – not all of them tremendous but significant in our journey. At the heart of the matter, we understand God’s way, the right path. If we are honest with ourselves, we also realize how hard it is and how we might rather turn away from radical hospitality and unconditional love than toward it, despite our deep yearning for unity with God. Like all endeavors to do good greater than ourselves, we need God’s help. We need God’s grace. So we keep praying:
“Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will keep them to the end.” Amen.
Though not the Sewanee choir, “Teach me, O Lord” can be heard on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAmWl8xWmZQ
The NPR StoryCorps transcript can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/20/136463363/forgiving-her-sons-killer-not-an-easy-thing