As we conclude our readings from the Sermon on the Mount at the end of the Sundays after Epiphany, we hear God ask us to be holy and perfect, and distinct and whole in our love for neighbors and enemies alike. And we are reminded that this kind of holiness will look like foolishness in the eyes of the world.
Matthew 5: 38-48
Jesus continues his teaching with the formula “you have heard it said/but I say to you” which we encountered last week. As he asks us to be salt and light, visible signs of righteousness to the world, he lays down the challenge that such righteousness will be embodied in refusing the pattern of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The examples of this teaching in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are very specific, and it is significant that Jesus assumes his followers will take this mandate out of context and apply it to every encounter and slight.
Instead, Jesus asks his followers to turn the left cheek in addition to the right if someone strikes; when sued for a coat to give a cloak as well; and to go two miles if conscripted to go one. Walter Wink wrote quite convincingly that these actions were not simply submission, but strategies by which the one struck, sued, or conscripted could assert dignity while appealing to the other’s humanity, which Wink called the “Third Way” of Jesus [Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 101-111].
The second admonition, to love not just your neighbor but also your enemy, presses us further down the path of holiness and righteousness, for as Jesus asks, if we love our neighbors only, how is our holiness distinct?
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
God commands the people of Israel to be holy as “I the Eternal your God am holy.” The Hebrew adjective qadosh can mean sacred, separate, distinct, and set apart. Israel will therefore be distinct via a holiness constituted by a righteousness greater than that of others.
This righteousness is expressed in care and concern for the poor and the alien, who should be able to glean the edges of the fields and pick the fallen grapes of the vineyards. It is expressed in care for laborers who should not be defrauded their wages, and for the poor who are accused, that they not be judged unjustly.
Our holiness as righteousness is expressed as love for our neighbors and for the poor and alien in our midst.
I Corinthians 3: 10-11
The Apostle Paul preaches that we all must “choose with care how to build” on the foundation that is Jesus Christ (vss. 10-11). As we build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ, our wisdom will look like foolishness in the eyes of the world (vss. 18-19). Even if the foundation and what we build upon it looks foolish, we may rest assured that the path to follow is God’s wisdom, not the wisdom of the world.
Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, Ph.D., is President of The Liturgical Conference, Senior Pastor of First Congregational Church UCC, Wilmette, Illinois, and affiliate faculty in Christian History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.