On Matthew’s nameless mountain, Jesus the new Moses speaks the demands of the new Law, and it is harsh reading (Mt 5: 21-37).
If you are angry, you will be judged. If you look with lust, you are just as much an adulterer as if you were coming out of a cheap motel room looking guilty. Except for cases of “unchastity”, divorce is the same as adultery too. And oh, did I mention tearing out your sinful eye, cutting off the hand with which you sin?
What do we do with these texts? Take them literally? A few people in the early church did, so bishops issued decrees that self-mutilation was not approved. Be “selectively literal”? Even if we are not going to cut off hands or pluck out eyeballs, who passes a day without getting angry or “looking with lust” if only for a moment? Anyone? Really? Or do we dismiss these texts as representing a Jesus that we want no part of? If we walk a path of dismissing texts and teachings that make us uncomfortable, the result is a cozy and fuzzy belief-set conforming to our own wants and hopes. In effect, we have committed idolatry; we have placed our own desires on an altar and swung a bit of inoffensive incense over it.
Well, my favorite Biblical commentator was Abba Joseph of the early Desert, who when asked the meaning of a Biblical text replied, “I know not.” But here is what I do know:
These texts do not allow any of us to remain in our own “comfort zone.” They do not allow any of us to be complaisant in any sense of self-justification. We are all revealed as falling short, tending towards self-delusion, prone to failing the high standard over and over again.
And when we come to the end of our self-justification, the end of our personal delusions, then end of our complaisance—then we stand as we are, human and ordinary, limited and in need, before God. And in that moment we begin to know who God is and who we are, and God can begin to really do something for us, in us, and through us.