Saturday, February 22, 2014

Whole Truth

Matthew 5:43-48; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

            Perhaps it is out of fashion these days, especially among the young, to imagine a Christianity devoid of the hard-to-believe stuff, like miracles, and stripped of its more complex dogmas, like the Virgin Birth and the Trinity.  But there have been hosts of people, especially over the last couple of hundred years, who have claimed to delight in the ethical teachings of Jesus, wishing that we could just get on with practicing the Sermon on the Mount and not bother about the rest.  Thomas Jefferson is a great example of that sort of thinking, and is perhaps the only person who went so far as to take scissors and cut out of the Bible what seemed foolishness to him while retaining the parts that made sense. 

            Have you actually read the Sermon on the Mount?  While there is some sensible advice there, much of it is far too challenging to have much appeal to the average person.  And that is perhaps what led G. K. Chesterton to quip that the problem was not that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had been wanted but never tried.[1]  You will find scores of biblical literalists who will hurl Leviticus at you (though not necessarily the passage read today) and carry on about this and that in St. Paul’s letters, but who are strangely silent on such texts as “Love your enemies” and who would imagine giving your coat away when asked to be the undoing of free-market economics, the economics they presume to be most pleasing to God. 
            Make no mistake about it:  Jesus was a complete surprise to the biblical literalists of his day.  Of that we have mountains of evidence.  “You have heard that it was said of old,” became, “but I say to you….”  Jesus was the arch-revisionist.  People don’t like that.  Most of us want a Jesus we can manage.  Even social radicals want Jesus to behave as they behave and believe what they believe.  We are all busy cutting him down to size, nailing him down on some new cross, making him fit what seems to us to be the slot into which any thinking god would naturally slide. 

            If you think that I am somehow talking about all those other people out there, or maybe even about you, let me come clean.  I am talking about me.  I am frankly a little worried that I might be too eager to jam Jesus into a structure of my own making that I have built over the years with a little of this, a little of that.  And I am about to suggest that maybe Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, was preaching something that is quite a shock.  At the same time I realize that the “shock” is something that resonates deeply within me and therefore is more comfort than shock.  So be warned.  I have told you.

            Let’s cut to the chase.  Matthew 5:48.  “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”  I remember reading that when I was a boy thinking simultaneously that Jesus was giving me a difficult assignment and at the same time imagining that I might be able to pull it off.  God knows I wanted to be perfect.  Are you a perfectionist?  Then you understand.  Perfectionists might allow that perfection is impossible, but that does not keep us from trying to achieve it.  Andrew Tobias wrote a about forty years ago a book called The Best Little Boy in the World.  That would be the perfect title for an autobiography I would write.  I wanted to be the best little boy.  “Best,” however, meant lining up on the side of the angels, on the side of Mrs. Long and Mrs. Lemmon and others of my teachers, on the side of the preacher, on the side of my mother and grandmother and the other great mothers including Mother Church.  Being the “best little boy” meant being neat and handing in homework on time and not smudging my papers with nasty erasures and not soiling my clothes at stupid games like baseball where you had to slide in the dust in order to reach a stupid base.  In short, being perfect meant being clean, and I was pleased at age 11 to note that one of the twelve commandments in the Boy Scout Law was that a scout was clean and that I surely measured up in thought, word, and deed. 

            I tell you all this not because I think my childhood is all that picturesque or admirable, but simply to put in starker relief what I but dimly acknowledged.   I had a dark side, too.  In fact that dark side was sometimes a direct by-product of perfectionism, as when I would become irritable to the point of being irascible because other people failed to meet my expectations, resulting in a sullen mood that Mama termed “a bull spell.”  But that was the least of it.  I was secretly fascinated by boys whose dirt and dirty language disgusted me.  Almost more than anything I wanted the acceptance and approval of my big brother whose hands frequently dripped of grease from the motors he worked on.  And, as a growing little human, I did to some extent what all of our species do when we secretly admire something we are not:  I detested and even loathed those who were the polar opposites of clean, good, well behaved.  But I saved my greatest  loathing for the parts of myself that deep down felt attracted to that other pole.

            What I am describing, of course, is the modus operandi of hate.  We hate with a vengeance those people who mirror the parts of ourselves that we have learned to spurn, repress, deny, even kill.  So when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” and “pray for those who persecute you,” he is challenging us to re-think and re-do our neatly polarized, dualistic world of clean and unclean, good and evil, included and excluded, love and hate, enemies and friends.  And then, at the peak of this part of his sermon, Jesus goes over the top and says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  But by that he does not call us to moral perfectionism, or to some kind of impossibly high standard.  The word he (according to Matthew) uses is the word that means “whole,” and it alludes to passages in the Hebrew scriptures such as Deuteronomy 18:13:  “You shall be perfect before the Lord your God.”[2]   You shall be whole.  Now that, of course, can mean lots of things, perhaps the most conventional of which is that we must serve God wholeheartedly, and so on.  I think it means more than that.  I think to be whole means to claim the parts of ourselves that we have not yet claimed, to embrace the parts of ourselves that are weak, ugly, dirty.  To do so greatly reduces the probability that we project those unattractive parts of ourselves onto other people, for example, and hate in them what we hate in ourselves. 

            We can think up any number of reasons for having enemies and treating them as such.  The main reason is that enemies wish us harm and do to us what we do to them, which is, in a word, to dehumanize.   We can defend incessantly the rightness and usefulness of hanging on to our cloaks or pocketbooks when somebody demands that we surrender them.  We can rationalize forever stopping at a mile when somebody pushes us beyond our limits.  But the world of rationalizations and defensiveness is not the life of wholeness that characterizes God, who generously sends rain on just and unjust alike.  So rather than thinking up reasons why Jesus’ sermon is so unrealistic for us, we might think instead about the God whom Jesus calls us to be like. 

            Interestingly, it is in that much-spurned book of Leviticus that the Holiness Code describes how we are to behave like God.   Be generous with the poor and the alien.  Be honest.  Let your word be true.  Give your employees their wages when they are due.  And, most interestingly, do not revile the deaf. 

            Joe and I saw the play Tribes this week at Studio Theatre.  It is about a young deaf man who has grown up in a family where language and speaking are in some way every other family member’s gift.  His parents do not want him to grow up marginalized and relegated to minority status, so they treat him like their other children.  Makes sense?  Yes, except that it doesn’t take into account that he is by his very nature excluded from all the comments, much of the humor, in short anything that requires the refinements of complete hearing.  When he finally discovers the Deaf Community he realizes what he has been missing, begins to learn sign language, and begins to experience the exhilaration of being a part of a tribe that he naturally belongs to.  The entire play examines the subtleties and complexities of how languages unite and separate, how words and sounds can express a variety of things that register quite differently on people depending on what they can understand.  “Do not revile the deaf.”  Perhaps the way we want to include others is not necessarily best for them.  Exclusion does not happen in only one way.  And it is not always intended. 

            This God that we keep talking about is nowhere other than everywhere, including  the transactions of our daily lives.  Thus this holiness that we are called to participate in is not the same as, yet intimately connected with, this wholeness that we can embrace.  Does that sound like a contradiction?  Perhaps.  But it is more like the union of opposites, the necessary components of a harmony that cannot occur until at least two elements blend.  Find that deep part of yourself that is generous in lending, that can love even your enemy, that refuses to revile the deaf and will not sanction a stumbling block for the blind.  At the same time, acknowledge that there is even on your brightest days a shadow-world that lives inside you.

            So much of Christian teaching is about how to live in the light, and that is fine.  But equal emphasis needs to be placed on embracing the parts of ourselves that are unlovely and unlovable.  It is these very parts of us that the Power of Christ reaches out to love and to accept, dissolving thereby their strange hold on us, redeeming and healing the places in us that dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Come, Lord Jesus, speak the word only and we shall be whole.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[2] The Hebrew word is tamîm, which means “wholeness.”  The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII, p. 196.

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