Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time: 2-19-17
Peace be with You,
The last several weekends have found us making our way through the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. And as we have made our way along, we have ever kept in mind that he who proclaims these words to us is the very Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came into existence (John 1:1-3; cf. Colossians 1:16). Having firm trust, then, that he who speaks is God from God and true Light from true Light, we have sought to understand the words uttered as rays of Light falling upon a world that has become distorted by the darkness of sin in order that it may once again be seen for what it is and so may live according to its purpose; i.e. that it may participate in the Life from which it was brought forth. This conceptual understanding of the Sermon on the Mount was again brought to our attention last weekend when we saw Jesus as Lawgiver. Accordingly, we found that it was necessary to transform our understanding of “law” in this context from our usual conception of it as an outside imposition upon our freedom to a pronouncement of the way things have been created, revealed to us in order that we might live in accordance with our nature and so ever more experience fullness of life. This weekend, we continue with the last two of the six so-called “antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, which will reveal to us that far from limiting human freedom, our God seeks to truly set us free.
Think back to your childhood days; your days at home and at school. Think back to your fondest memories of learning; be it the instruction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, etc. How did these individuals help you to grow, to learn right from wrong or learn multiplication tables? The best of our teachers show a special patience. They undertook their craft of instruction with the greatest care; diagnosing our lack of skill and applying the appropriate therapy needed for us to flourish in whatever area they were entrusted with overseeing our development in. They knew just what discipline was appropriate for any given occasion of acting out of order, knowing that in order for us to develop, it was important for us to remain focused on the task at hand. And all the while, unbeknownst to us, every action they undertake has in mind to move us further down the path from novice to expert, the very best of them making up for our unexpected missteps in the dance of development so as to appear as though it was part of the routine all along.
When it comes to the classroom of life, we have but one Teacher who employs all the techniques of the most erudite instructor while simultaneously executing them with the care of a mother. St. Augustine wrote that “there is one in heaven Who is the Teacher of all…Who prompts us externally through men by means of signs, so that we are instructed to be inwardly turned toward Him” (The Teacher, 13.46). This Teacher, has been instructing the human family since he brought us into existence, continually guiding them towards reaching their fullest potential which was ultimately revealed in the Incarnation of the Son of God.
This understanding of God as the Teacher of humanity appears with some frequency in the writings of the Church Fathers. For example, Athanasius understood God to be utilizing various techniques in revealing himself and the purpose of human family throughout the course of history. First among them was our creation in the image and likeness of our God, however, like a good teacher, God anticipating the weakness of his students, saw to it “that if they cared not to recognize [Him] through themselves, through the works of creation they might not be ignorant of their Creator” (On the Incarnation, 12). On the Athanasian account, further means of instruction included the Law and the prophets, which as he saw it, were meant not only for the Jews, but “for the whole inhabited world,” meant to function as “a sacred school of the knowledge of God and conduct of the soul” (ibid.).
In the employment of these various pedagogical “techniques,” Irenaeus saw God’s long-suffering, i.e. his patience and care for the human family, “because God made man a free agent from the beginning, possessing his own power…to obey the behests from God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will towards us is present with Him continually” (Against Heresies, Bk 4.37.1). In short, what the Fathers of the Church noted when they looked back upon the interaction between God and the human family that had taken place throughout history, they saw an instruction taking place meant to reveal who God is to the human family and thereby make their own purpose known to themselves; that purpose ultimately being that they must ‘be holy because he is holy,’ and they must ‘love their neighbors as themselves,’ as we see in our first reading from the book of Leviticus today (Leviticus 19:2 & 18).
This is precisely what we see Jesus doing in our gospel reading for today from Matthew. Here it is important to recall three things: 1) today’s reading is still part of the Sermon on the Mount; and 2) this weekend’s gospel is directly connected with last weekend’s, making up the last two of the six “antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, as noted above (N.B. the “antitheses” being those passages which begin with, ‘You heard that it was said…but I say’); and, perhaps most pertinent for our discussion today 3) in last weekend’s gospel, Jesus began by reminding us that ‘he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them’ (Matt. 5:17-18), thereby indicating that he continues that same pedagogy of the human family which had been going on for millennia.
The two “antitheses” included in today’s gospel are difficult to handle, which is evidenced by the wide range of opinions as to exactly what Jesus had in mind when he spoke them. For example, there are some scholars who believe that the moral standard that Jesus puts forth is so high that he must have been speaking superfluously, referring especially to love of enemies and the giving away of one’s temporal belongings at the unjust request of another. Others would suggest that Jesus meant exactly what he said, and that he really does expect us all to live in poverty and as pacifists. My response would fall somewhere in the middle of these solutions.
So, does Jesus mean what he says in these antitheses? Given that the series ends with Jesus uttering the words, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48); that certainly seems to be the case. We might be able to get at this if we recall that, traditionally, we are taught that Jesus fulfills the three-fold role of Priest, Prophet, and King. Today, we see him as Prophet or Teacher (N.B. we only isolate this role here in order to make it easier to understand, this is not to suggest that the three offices are executed independently of one another by Christ; that is, he is not Teacher here, Priest there, and King in another episode, but all simultaneously in every action), however, Jesus is unlike any other teacher. As Orthodox theologian Dumitru Saniloae writes, Jesus “is the Teacher in the supreme sense through His own Person, for it is out of His Person that His teaching flows, a teaching that shows the true path for the human person toward the perfect eternity of existence” (The Experience of God, ch. 5).
Notice the profundity of these words, what is being described here is not simply an emotional inclination to the good which results in exterior action, but instead, the existential actions of Jesus, both his words and actions, are descriptive of his person. For example, the one who admonishes us not to return violence with violence but to turn the other cheek will literally do so on the eve of his Passion; the one who tells us to give our tunic to the one who asks is the King who will be stripped bare upon the cross; the one who exhorts us to go two miles with the one who asks us to travel one is the same Son of God who will traverse the depths of God-forsakenness in order to raise up the fallen human family; the one who calls us to give to the one who begs of us is the same sacrifice who willingly gives his whole life out of love; and the same one who asks us to love our enemies is the same sacrificial Lamb who will offer prayers out of love for the ones who spat on and mocked him, crowned him with thorns and nailed him to a tree. All of these actions flow forth naturally from the life of the hypostatic union; from the person of Jesus Christ, who is true man perfectly united to true God. This is how we are to understand Staniloae when he says Jesus is his teaching.
My friends, today Jesus has extreme demands for us; demands so extreme that they call us to perfection and nothing less. Yes, Jesus demands that we live the law and live it perfectly; ultimately what this demands of us is that we live a life of perfect love, just as he did. Why so great a demand? Because you were made to be perfect! By your very nature you were made for the perfection of sharing the Divine Life! This is precisely the ultimate lesson which undergirds all the lessons Jesus has for us and he proclaims it in his very Person. Yes, the One who is at the same time true God and true man, in perfect loving communion with one another stands before us today and declares this to be our destiny. In the final analysis we will not be compared with our neighbors, we will not be able to turn to God and say, “well, yeh, but I’m not as bad as him.” If that be the standard we live by we can be sure that on the day we meet the Father face to face, he will look at us and say, “you look nothing like my Son.” We have only one comparison to make, we have only one image to live up to, it is the very Image of God Who served as the template of our creation, Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15). And his life stands for us as a promise that though the demands are extreme, if we dare to follow him, he is there to offer us an abundance of mercy to see that we make it safely into the loving embrace of divine life; the only life of perfect happiness.
Your servant in Christ,