Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How is this possible?

Our lectionary texts for this week are Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, 16 and Matthew 5:13-20. You can read them in full here.

Have you ever noticed how much Jesus seems to contradict himself? If you were to carefully read all those red-letter (words of Jesus) portions of your Bible in one sitting, it would seem like Jesus often presents contrasting ways of discipleship that don't seem like they can simultaneously be true (see photo at's really not too far off of this).

Nowhere do Jesus' seemingly contradictory tendencies show up more clearly than in some of his core teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Take, for example, Jesus' famous statement in our Gospel text for the day:

"Let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16

How do we mesh this with Jesus' words just a few minutes later, according to Matthew's account:

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." Matthew 6:1 (a theme Jesus continues for many verses after this).

Then look back at the Beatitudes we studied last week. How do we hold "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" together with Jesus' later question of, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?" (Matthew 9:15). How can "Blessed are the peacemakers" be uttered by the same Teacher who declares, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34)? How does the One who tells us later in this sermon not to worry about tomorrow but focus only on this day (Matthew 6:34) later tell a parable condemning young women who fail to take enough oil with them to last more than one day in their lamps (Matthew 25:1-13)? Jesus, I would really love to live the way you teach me to live...but seriously, how is all of this possible?

We could go the route that some biblical scholars have gone and just write these things off as examples of contradictions in the Bible that should have been caught by good editors, showing us, perhaps, that these words are only human after all. We could (as many preachers have) try our hardest to weave these teachings together or harmonize them, compromising each until neither actually says what it initially said.

But I was completely struck--perhaps even captivated--this afternoon when I read the words of New Testament scholar Eugene Boring about the presence of these contradictions:

"The Gospel is not intended as a rule for life, but to stimulate imagination and personal responsibility. The jagged edges of Jesus' sayings should not be too quickly rounded off to make them consistent with other biblical teachings, or even each other. Talk of the kingdom of God generates a certain wildness that is lost if it is domesticated" (Eugene Boring, "Matthew" in The New Interpreter's Bible).

It makes me wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said in the later part of our Gospel lesson, "I have not come to abolish [the law] but to fulfill [it]" (Matthew 5:18). Is this what it looks like to live fulfilling the law--not to follow orderly, logical steps but to dance between the contradictions, learning our own place and embracing the wildness of it all if it allows us to imagine and begin to create a whole new world, if it lets us participate in and experience God's kingdom here on earth?

I'm still chewing on it, but wow...I sure like that idea. What do you think?

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