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Readings: 3rd Sunday before Lent

07 February 2014

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Proper 2: Deuteronomy 30.15-end; 1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37

Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THIS week, we hear, as we did last week, about God's commandments. The readings are demanding. Moses, in his farewell address, set a stark choice before the perverse people whom he had shepherded through the wilderness for years: life or death.

It seems like a waste of words on his part; for who would not choose life and prosperity? But with the choice of life came responsibilities: obedience, love, and steadfastness. The experience of Moses was that these were not the people's strong suit.

By asking them to make a choice, he asked them to be mature people, taking responsibility for their future. He had led them from slavery; now they had to choose to live as free people, realising the consequences of their choices and actions.

Paul wrote to equally challenging people, who seemed to be unaware of their immaturity. The rest of the letter spells out some consequences of their choice of life in Christ Jesus, requiring them to make radical changes to their communal life. For now, Paul pointed them to God, who gives the growth in their lives, as he and they worked together to bring about their spiritually maturity.

Part of the Corinthians' problem was their division, which denied their unity in Christ. They were jealous and quarrelled, behaving according to human inclinations rather than with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2.16). Relationships had broken down, as they identified themselves divisively with Paul and Apollos, not grasping their modelling of what it meant to be God's servants rather than human leaders.

Jesus gave more examples of broken or distorted relationships, which result in murder, anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. He was nothing if not realistic about the field into which he was sowing the seeds of God's Kingdom. Sadly, the situation is little changed today, even if the details differ: the dreadful situation created by Bishop Nolbert Kunonga in Zimbabwe, where people could not even offer gifts at the altar, is an extreme example, but, tragically, the Church abounds with less dramatic divisive stories.

Although Jesus used a figure of speech when speaking of cutting off a hand, he drew on his hearers' knowledge that such physical mutilation precluded participation in Old Testament worship (Leviticus 21.5, 17-23). In God's Kingdom come among them, worship no longer required physical perfection, but perfection of life.

In Matthew, Jesus more than once calls for radical action in order to meet God's standards of righteousness. He repeated these exhortations about cutting off anything that causes us to sin (Matthew 18.8-9), and later (Matthew 23.16-22) called woes on the Pharisees and hypocrites for failing to do what he taught here.

This was clearly an enormously serious matter for Jesus: the coming of God's Kingdom is no soft option. The pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5.8), and purity of heart, as Kierkegaard said, is to will one thing: in this context, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5.48).

This pursuit of purity of heart is not a cause for despair at the enormity of the demands. There is a possible way. Jesus models another attitude of total commitment to God, and assumed that his disciples could and would live differently, even at great cost to themselves. They could choose life with all its consequences because, as Moses told the people (Deuteronomy 30.6), God would circumcise their hearts, causing them to love God.

The collect, as so often, is a helpful prayer in the light of the challenge of the readings. We have unruly wills and passions - ask Paul about that, as he wrote to the Corinthians - to which only God can bring order. God does it by giving us grace to love what he commands, and to desire what he promises, so that we find, increasingly, that we want to fix our hearts on him. As we pursue God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, we will be filled.

Archbishop William Temple's words are apposite to this week's readings, as we reflect on how the way we live reflects our relationship with God. He reminds us that the inclination of our heart towards God is what directs our living. "It is sometimes supposed that conduct is primary and worship tests it. That is incorrect: the truth is that worship is primary and conduct tests it."

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