Year A Epiphany 6: Choose life

Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Gruesome stuff. What does he mean by it?

I remember when our eldest child was newborn, and sleeping in my arms in the living room in front of the television, asking my husband to change the channel. Whatever movie was playing was too violent, or graphic, or somehow unsuitable for viewing with a baby in tow. My husband quite sensibly pointed out that, a) she was asleep, and that b) at a couple of weeks old she was unlikely to understand what was happening on the screen if she did happen to wake up. I don’t suppose that it was completely rational (I was a brand-new mother, and rationality was not top of my list of priorities at the time), but my gut feeling was that a) it was nevertheless bad for her to absorb such influences, even subliminally, and that b) I was at risk of passing the ill effects of such viewing on to her through my milk. I know it sounds a little crazy, but still I think that there is something to the idea that whatever we choose to take in and absorb, we will in some way pay out and feed to those around us, especially those closest to us.

Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.”

How many times have you heard someone say, “I am literally dying for a cup of coffee!” or, “These boots are murder”, or, “It’s literally freezing out there!”?

We usually recognize hyperbole when we hear it. That last one was not, in fact, great example. But when Jesus says, “Anyone who says, ‘You fool,’ commits murder,” we know that he is employing a verbal strategy to make a point and command the attention of his audience. When he says, “Cut off your right hand,” I sincerely hope that we recognize the recklessly ramped-up rhetoric. Perhaps we miss the ironic effect because Jesus didn’t add the word, “literally,” when he said that looking at another person lustfully, or getting divorced and remarried, are each and both equally identical to adultery, making him “literally” less emphatic and hyperbolic than most millennials, but these statements, too, are in the same context and category as the others. So let’s try to move beyond the shock value of the rhetorical device and try to find out just what it is that Jesus is advising in what could be his very own commentary on the Deuteronomic instruction to “choose life.”

To back up just a little bit, the Deuteronomy passage comes at the end of the giving of the law of the covenant via Moses to the people of Israel. Moses is summing up, in his final farewell to the people he has led through the wilderness under the guidance of God for forty years, and admonishing, exhorting and encouraging them to continue to follow the one who gives them life, who fed them in the famine, gave them water from the rock, and has brought them to the borders of the promised land. “Choose life,” he says. Choose God.

These are people with a poor track record for getting discouraged and distracted; they responded to the first law by creating a golden calf idol before Moses even got down from the mountain. Now, they are entering a whole new dimension of different denominations of pagan worship, and they are more than likely to get sidetracked into magic and mayhem, spiritualism and false sacrifices. Moses knows, too, that he will not be going with them into the promised land, yet the sight of the land itself is sufficient to assure him that God’s promises have been fulfilled, will be fulfilled, that there is life abundant available to his people and their descendants, forever.

Moses knows that God is the one, true God, who has stuck by them through thick and thin and without whom they would have died many times over in the desert. “Choose life,” he urges.

Jesus is addressing a different set of idols, shared among the descendants of the self-same people and subject to the same temptations to turn away from the truth to worship lies and distractions. Adultery, murder, theft, covetousness, and false witness, all concerns of the ten commandments that Moses read to the people, are presenting the same risks to the same people here and now. Lust, envy, betrayal, anger and avarice all fall under the list that Jesus offers.

He might say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ but I say to you that words have power. The one who hurls words as weapons might as well be considered a violent offender.” Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, surmised that, “Murder starts in the heart. Even the thought of killing someone, or the wish that he might get hurt or harmed is a sin…Anger that is nursed develops into hatred, which is not a momentary outburst of temper, but a settled intense dislike and enmity. Hatred is the opposite of love, it is murder of the heart.” So Luther decides, “We should be kind in our words and dealings with others, patient, gentle, not easily provoked and angered, even though they be gruff and insulting.” He concludes, “Alas, how guilty are we all under this Commandment!”

Guard your tongue, Jesus is telling us, and guard your temper. It is not our place to judge; we are not to usurp the judgement of God but to be patient with our brothers and sisters, knowing that there are times when we sorely try their patience in return. Society all too often encourages us to be fearful of one another; to judge first and ask questions later. We have heard too many news stories of needless death not to know where that leads us. Jesus tells us to look through the lens of faith to see our sisters and brothers in Christ, and to seek reconciliation and relationship as a primary strategy, asking questions first in order to avoid shooting later.

He says, “Do not look on one another with lust.” From Miley Cyrus twerking to internet addiction, we are what we consume in the name of entertainment. The ancient Catholic concept of “custody of the eyes” is a response to that truism. “Custody of the eyes” says that if looking with lust will lead us astray, then we should guard our eyes in the same way that we guard our tongue and our temper, once again seeing one another through the lens of faith, as sisters and brothers in Christ, worthy of dignity and respect, as recipients of love rather than as objects of lust. Otherwise, we make idols of one another, and fools of ourselves.

My guess is that Jesus knew from his own experiences as a man the temptations that we willingly allow ourselves to entertain, to the danger of our own wellbeing and the health of our relationships.

We are bombarded every day and in every context with temptations to lust, avarice, envy. We have so many choices available to us. Advertisements and commercials assure us that we need more of this and much more of that, that we are less than we should be until we get it. They tell us over and over that we by ourselves are not strong enough, not sexy enough, not smart enough, do not have enough to win at life. True enough: we can’t do it all by ourselves. But these false promises of wholeness and satisfaction are our idols, our golden calves, our occasions of sin. Choosing them will not lead us into life.

The promise of God is that what we truly need for life has already been given freely in Jesus Christ, the promise of God revealed to us, life abundant for ourselves and those we love, forever. We do not need to fight for it, to beat anyone else down for it. We don’t need to swear by it, or to lust after it. We need only to say yes to it, to choose this life, the life of Christ, and it is ours.

And if we let it feed us, this life, this promise, then that is what we will pass on to those around us, too: love, light, and life abundant; a legacy truly worth leaving; a life worth living.

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2 Responses to Year A Epiphany 6: Choose life

  1. Gary McElroy says:

    I appreciate your reflections on your experience with the babe in arms. Not sure I get the link to Jesus saying. It is somehow more than hyperbole. It is a conceit intended to provoke….but provoke what? There seems to be an implied link between sin and physical urges, such that doing violence to one’s physical self might diminish the sinful impulse, Unfortunately, numerous persons with mental illness have acted on the suggestion. Many Christians, past and present have been led to various types of flagellation under the belief that punishing the body will diminish its sinful impulses. This saying leads us down this path, and I do not see any virtue in it.

    Luther thoughts make better sense. Angers, resentments, and the like need to be rooted out before they build up and occasion outbursts which may be dangerous to oneself and others. The roots of sin lie in unresolved issues rather than in bodily parts or physical reactions. The therapeutic “working through” issues is certainly a desirable suggestion to make and may be the kind of thing Jesus had in mind with his sayings on anger and adultery and divorce. But the conceit about plucking it out doesn’t fit in his discussion. Thanks for your thoughts and insights!

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