Wednesday, February 16, 2011

That %&!* Extra Mile...

The end of chapter 5 of Matthew contains some of the most challenging and controversial material in the New Testament.  It's here that Jesus condemns divorce, that he tells us not to resist those who do us wrong but to offer our other cheek, and that he calls for loving our enemies.

The section has 6 such pronouncements. While each can be taken separately, and often is, it's so important to understand the broader context that informs them all.  We recall that one of Matthew's goals is to illustrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism, that he's actually more Jewish than the Jews.

And to prove that, what he does here is take the rules of the Torah about revenge, adultery, etc., and amps them up, gives an even more challenging interpretation. The law says don't kill or commit adultery; I say, don't even think about doing those things.  The law says an 'eye for an eye'; today we hear that as permission to fight back, but in actuality it was a statement limiting the sort of fighting back one could do.  (i.e. if they take your eye, yes, you can take their eye; but you can't take their hand or foot, or son, too.) And again, Jesus takes that command to restrain oneself to the extreme -- withhold your lust for revenge completely.

So, what we're seeing is a religious version of a great Broadway tune:

What this all means for you and me: following the letter of the law is not enough. You can be a dirty old man (or woman) and never commit adultery.  You can never kill anyone and still be a total fill-in-the-blank.  And more generally, you and I can check off all the ten commandments and still have lots of sins to confess.  Because there's a lot more to the commandments than the letter.

I used to teach English at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, SD, a high school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Great place.  And super challenging -- different culture, first time teacher, lots of mistakes made.

And one of the things I learned out there was that as a teacher I could readily insulate myself from the failures of my students by taking a series of steps -- I gave these instructions; I offered this reminder; I later gave this warning. Having done all these things, their failure is not my fault.

And it's not that that's wrong, everyone's got to take responsibility for their own education.  But sometimes as a teacher you also know, you could have done more. Or done differently.  Yes, you did follow the rules, and so on the surface it appears that you did all you needed to, but that really what you did was about covering your own ass, and not enabling your student to succeed.  And so while you look right with the world, really you didn't do right by your students.

We all have experiences like that, be it as parents, children, spouses, employers, employees, where we are able to appear justified, yet we sort of know that we really aren't.  We didn't go the extra mile, or oftentimes we just didn't go the right mile. And that's what we're called to do.

Put another way, behind the laws that we embrace is the loving God who gave them to us.  If we're following them but we don't look like him, as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, we got some 'splaning to do.

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