A Journey of faith within the church, the culture and the world
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Ordinary Time - Jesus and Reorientation
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . . (Matthew 4:23-5:2)
For me, the gospeller Matthew is a master storyteller. My imagination opens up when I read Matthew’s account of Jesus, and I see in my mind the story as it comes to life, hopefully in a way that comes sort of close to where the author intended.
In the passage just before the one above, Jesus goes around making new friends and inviting them to journey with him—to follow him. Then, he immediately draws them into the work he has come to do—proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and healing the sick, both of which were signs of God’s present and future intentions for the world.
Once he sees crowds of people responding to his work (and why wouldn’t they?), he heads up the side of a mountain and his friends follow him there. At first it seems like a very private meeting, one that is separated from the drama of the crowds below, but then you get to the end of chapter seven and you find out that the people were all astonished at his teachings. Apparently Jesus’ words weren’t limited to just his twelve new friends. Maybe the side of the mountain served as his pulpit as he spoke to the crowds as they gathered below.
The words that Jesus speaks in the text that follows—what we call The Sermon on the Mount—are a message of reorientation. He knows that the people, by and large, come with a preset way of thinking about life, human relationships, God, justice, and so on, but that their mental lenses for looking at reality are flawed, marred by legalism, guilt, shame, misinterpretation, and tribal preferences. So he does quite of bit of “You have heard . . .” contrasted by “But I say to you . . .” stuff in his sermon.
This is kind of like what happened to the ancient Hebrew people when God, through Moses, rescued them from the Pharaoh’s grasp. They had spent generations as slaves in Egypt, and their identity was completely wrapped up in that categorization. When they are given the Law—not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Levitical code with all of its rules about dietary restrictions, social relationships, worship, and justice—they find a new way to live together that is oriented toward God rather than toward Pharaoh, and it brings life to them.
But by Jesus’ day, that liberating, reorienting Law had become soul-breaking legalism, and he brings a fresh word to the people, revealing God’s intentions as they always had been. This is not a new kind of law that Jesus brings; it is a new and life-giving way to orient one’s life toward God.
I think that we who claim to follow Jesus need to revisit this business of reorientation every so often. I know that I do. It’s easy to get smug and decide that we’ve pretty much got things figured out and then quit thinking too deeply about whether we’re right or not. I think we need to hear Jesus say, “You have heard . . . but I say to you . . .” once in a while so that we remember that our confidence doesn’t come from getting everything right, but rather that it comes from following close to Jesus.
There are a lot of issues right now tearing the Christian church to pieces—like the place of gay people in the life of the church, immigration reform, economic justice, and how we closely we align our faith with our political preferences. Most of us engage in these conversations with perceptions of rightness that come out of our personal histories. We have made past decisions, we’ve studied, we’ve argued, and we’ve heard. We often believe that we’ve got it all right.
But maybe these difficult conversations are an opportunity for us to listen anew to the voice of Jesus say,