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The Third Sunday before Lent
(Epipjany 6, Yr A, Tr 2), 12.2.06  (Should be Yr B- I goofed)
Ecclus 15.5-20: choice of fire & water, life & death: you have freedom to choose & will be rewarded accordingly.
Ps 119.1-8: Happy are they ... who walk in the law of the Lord
1 Cor 3.1-9: party strife at Corinth
Matt 5.21-37:

Collect
: Eternal God, whose Son went among the crowds and brought healing with his touch: help us to show his love in your Church as we gather together, and by our lives as they are transformed into the image of Christ our Lord.
Post Com
: Merciful Father, who gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life, that those who come to him should never hunger: draw us to the Lord in faith and love, that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom, where he is alive and reigns, now and forever. (1545- 155=1390)

 Summary: The ancient pattern of humanity of wisdom, power and well-being undergirds Matthew's witness to Jesus' humanity and ours and calls us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

          Our opening hymn began with the line, “There lived a man in Galilee ”.  That man is Jesus the Christ, and our calling in Christ is to become truly human.  So what does it mean to be human?
          My educated guess is that thinking about this probably started out with viewing society as a whole and only later was this then applied to people as individuals.  One of the reasons that I think this is based on the work of a twentieth century Frenchman named Georges Dumézil (1898-1986).  He
studied Indo-European languages and their societies for over fifty years.  He found an ancient three-fold structure in society: rulers and sages (the wise ones), warriors (the powerful ones), and hunter-gatherers (the providers of sustenance and well-being).  That is, the rulers, along with those we might call their civil servants, namely sages and prophets, were the wise ones.  The warriors were obviously the powerful ones, and the rest furnished the food, goods and services needed for well-being.  This, for example, appears to have formed the basis for the development of the rigid Indian caste system, with the Brahmins at the top as the wise ones, the Kshatrya warrior caste just below them, and everyone else further down.

          This same threefold division is found in Egypt around 1600 BC in the northern capital, Memphis, where three gods were grouped together, namely, Ptah, the creator god of wisdom, imagination and craft, his consort, Sakhmet, the fierce protectress, and their child, Nefertem, the god of fertility and new life. 

          Thus, viewing the health of society as a whole, there emerged a structure that matched the need for wisdom, power and well-being.

           In the 8th century BC the prophet Isaiah, speaking of God’s coming judgement says (3.1-2): 'For behold, the Lord, Yahweh of hosts, is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah stay and staff, the whole stay of bread and the whole stay of water, the mighty man and the man of war, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder’.  Here is the pattern applied to the whole of Judah in the order well-being, power and wisdom.

          In the same century the prophet Micah addresses every individual human being in terms of power, wisdom and well-being when he says, “What does the LORD your God require of you but to ­­­­­­do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” (6.8), a passage echoed in this morning’s general confession.

          This three-fold pattern of wisdom, power and well-being runs through the Old Testament.  And the whole stress throughout is that these qualities come only through dependence upon God.  The pattern is so widely known that it is used to specify the terms on which one was to be admitted to the community at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea scrolls. In turn, it is used by the writers of the New Testament to bear witness to that humanity which is to be seen in Jesus and to which we are called. 

          St Paul, for example, openly says in 1 Corinthians (1.26), “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”  And he uses this pattern to structure the letter.  St Luke in his gospel says of the growing young man, “And Jesus increased in wisdom, and in stature [using a word that means age of strength­­] and in favour with God and man”, (Lk 2.52).   
          St Mark builds his Gospel on the pattern, and St Matthew, re-working and expanding St Mark’s Gospel, does likewise.  Matthew presents Jesus as saying that the deep things of the Law are justice, mercy, and faith, drawing on the passage from Micah. In the first verse of his Gospel Matthew echoes Genesis 5.1, which begins, ‘The book of the generations of Adam’.  Matthew has: ‘The book of the generations of Jesus’.  In other words, if you want to know the true Adam, then look at Jesus.  Matthew gives him three titles: Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham.  As the Christ he brings justice to completion in the cross; as Son of David he is called for, and shows mercy; as Son of Abraham he is the one who lives by faith.  In short, Jesus is the man of true power, true wisdom, and true well-being.  I say again, if you want to know what it is to be human, then look at Jesus: he is the true human being, and his is the humanity to which we are called.

          And now we are ready for the reading from Matthew that I have put in your hands, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount.  The sermon has begun with nine beatitudes, which Matthew has arranged in three groups of three each, concerned with Abrahamic faith, Davidic mercy, and the justice that is seen in Christ and the cross, and it is all addressed to us, with the rest of the sermon spelling this out in reverse order, that is, in the order of justice and power, wisdom and mercy, and faith and well-being.  The whole of the sermon has been called an impossible ethic, that is, an ethic that no human being could possibly fulfil.  It has also been described as an interim ethic, that is, an ethic to hang on to by the skin of your teeth for the few days that remain until the end of the world as we know it, which is just around the corner.  But what it really does is spell out the depth of the life to which God in his grace calls us in Christ:  It is a description of the promise to us of life in the new Kingdom.

          The reading you have begins in the part concerned with justice, power and peacemaking (5.21-26).  It then continues (5.27-37) with the theme of mercy and true wisdom.

          Let’s begin with the last verse: “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  At least twice in the Torah one is required to swear an oath.  Jesus sets all oaths aside as not being the will of his Father.  And the verses that follow the ending of all oaths are concerned with swearing by various things.  The point of these verses is that one might have sworn an inconvenient oath that one wished to get out of.  So the rabbis discussed whether or not one could have a hierarchy of oaths, with one able to scuttle out from under the obligations of a lesser oath.  But Jesus says, in effect, if you have to qualify what you say by saying, ‘I swear on a stack of Bibles’, then you have already sold the pass.  You and I are called to be utterly transparent and totally vulnerable in our speech if we are to be conformed to the image of Christ.

          And now for the first part of today’s gospel concerning murder.  Murder at heart is the severing of all possibility of relationship with no element of mercy, no element of forgiveness or reconciliation.  So in the heart of this passage Jesus completely turns it around, and says, “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (5.23-24).  This is how Jesus works out the words from the prophet Hosea: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6), a passage that is found twice in Matthew, and only in Matthew in the New Testament.  For, quite simply, an offering made without mercy is no offering at all.  And here we are not simply called upon to be wonderfully magnanimous and show mercy, but we are humbly to ask for it ourselves that there may be reconciliation.

          Jesus calls us to that radical dependence and obedience which he himself has shown.  It is only as we throw ourselves unreservedly on the love of God shown in Christ Jesus that we can truly begin to show forth the depth of the humanity to which you and I are called.