In some ways, within his Jewish context, there is nothing totally remarkable about what Jesus says here. Another Jewish Rabbi of the day, for example, Rabbi Siméon ben Lakish, is on record as saying, 'lest you should think only he who sins with his body is an adulterer, he who sins with his eye is also an adulterer.' Now Jewish rabbis, like all oral teachers use simplification and exaggeration to get their point across. Hence Jesus's remarks about plucking out your eye or chopping off your hand. They were not intended to be taken literally, otherwise we would have a great many one eyed and one handed people walking around. They were intended to wake his hearers up and get them to engage, and no doubt when he said these things there would have been some folk in the crowd who would have cheered and others who would have heckled, and they would not have sat neatly in rows and kept quiet like you folk. Actually, by the way, I never mind if we have a bit of dialogue, so don't be afraid to chip in! - any thoughts so far?
Jesus is trying to get beyond the idea that we can earn good behaviour points with God. The idea that somehow we can ever be good enough by our own efforts. And he does this by setting the bar impossibly high. Because it is very easy for human beings to believe that if only they keep the rules, they do what their parents and teachers and clergy have brought them up to do, and they never do any obvious harm to someone else, then that is good enough. And sometimes the belief that we are actually managing that can lead to attitudes that are quite self righteous and judgmental of others. Which was what was happening with the Pharisees in Jesus day, but is a human trait that is alive and well among us today.
Jesus is inviting us not to keep the rules, but to realise that we cannot keep the rules and that therefore we need a very different attitude towards ourselves, others and God. He is inviting us to realise as the great Bishop of Durham David Jenkins used to say, 'we are not up to it, but fortunately God in Christ is down to it.'
So what is the real invitation here, the invitation that will take us beyond our ego's satisfaction with getting it right, and into a deeper place of love and trust? Most of us who have been around small children recognise that when our little one throws a tantrum it has to do with their longing for affection, security or control, and that if they trust us we can bring them comfort. Sadly as we grow older we are not always so quick to recognise the same longings in ourselves. This can lead as Jesus says, to murderous and destructive behaviours, to breakdown of relationships, court cases, and people promising out of fear way more than they can reasonably deliver. All these things affect us in our family lives, our workplaces and yes, even our parishes! And when they do, we need to step back and ask ourselves and those involved, so what is really happening here, what's the fear, what's the longing that is being triggered? Then it can be possible to heal and move on, at least until the next time!
For ultimately we cannot overcome these tendencies by ourselves. We need the love and grace of God, which is always there for us, but for which we sometimes forget to ask! Without it we can become stuck in endless cycles of self justification and anxiety. Patrick Oliver, a wonderful spiritual director here in Brisbane talks about this in terms of being in the 'glare', rather than the 'gaze'. You need to read his work to have the fullness of this, but in brief terms he identifies being in 'the glare' with the kind of situation we find for example around a car park. You know how it goes. You're late, it seems like there is nowhere to put the car, you are going slowly, the person behind you peeps their horn, your stress levels rise with your fear and frustration, and maybe, just maybe, you utter something you wish you had not! That's the glare. It occurs whenever you feel pressure to achieve or perform in certain ways. The 'gaze' on the other hand is the loving gaze of God. It is always present and we cannot fall out of that gaze - but, we can forget about it, just as the infant, surrounded by the loving arms and gaze of their parent still cries and struggles in fear or frustration.
So what helps is to realise that the invitation to recognise that loving gaze is always on the table. We can do this every day. We can it right this moment. In fact, let's do it right now. Just put your books down, close your eyes, relax your body, take a deep breath , and register that God is looking at you right now , with love. Just stay there for a moment....... And when you feel you can, no rush, just come back to the everyday. Better? And that's it , we are only ever at most a breath away from recognising that we are in the loving gaze of God, and that that is all that matters. Not the things that our impatient lesser selves think matter, not the rules, not the trying to be perfect, not the Milton and one projects we have convinced ourselves are important. Just the staying in the gaze.
That is the true deep invitation of Jesus's teaching today. For we cannot be perfect, but we can by intention and grace learn to rest in that love for us and for all creation that surrounds, upholds and fills us moment by moment. May we open ourselves more and more to that invitation. In the name of Christ who invites us Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Epiphany 6 Year A, Sunday 12 February