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Homily: “On Responding to Sin”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time) Year A, 2017.

It is always worth remembering that the Gospel of St Matthew was written around fifty years after the death of Jesus on the Cross. This writing down happened after what must have been a robust oral tradition of passing down the sayings of Jesus within the community of Apostles and close disciples. In fact biblical scholars today continue to postulate the existence of a written collection of the sayings of Jesus available to Saint Matthew as well as Saint Luke as a source for the composition of their respective Gospels. This source, of which there is no actual record but is a theory supported by a consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars, is called “Q,” which is short for quelle, a German word meaning “source.” So according to the mainstream theory held widely by scholars, it was both Q and the Gospel of Saint Mark that were used to craft Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

While the theories of biblical scholars can often make for fascinating reading, what is notable for our use as a worshiping family is that Saint Matthew’s Gospel is not a documentary, straight rendering of the words of Jesus as He actually said them in real time, but the result of an oral tradition filtered by prayer. We are to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, as always authoritative and definitive to be sure, but not as if we are hearing the written transcript of an audio recording, but as fruits given to us by the very first Christians, many of whom knew Jesus in the flesh, and all of whom knew Him as He lived and moved and had His being as the Risen and Glorified Lord within the life of His Body, the Church. The biblical accounts in the New Testament crystallize in literary form the experience of the living Church—and the Bible’s purpose within a worshiping community is to feed, inspire and articulate this experience.

The notion that one person can read the Bible as an individual, even an individual with many gifts, and from that solitary experience of reading the Bible live an upright and holy life within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is very mistaken. Bible reading can only be attempted from within the fellowship of the living Church, which includes its theological tradition, its liturgical worship and its spiritual guidance. The Bible did not create the Church, but rather the Church created the Bible in order to feed, inspire and articulate the experience of being incorporated by Baptism into the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ—and in the Bible is subtlety, difficulty, and mystery. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.

What, then, are we to make of what we hear today? First, our Lord teaches about anger—while there is such a thing as righteous indignation, here Jesus is talking about the Capital Sin of Anger, the sin of denying the need for harmony with other creatures. Anger, besides being a sin, is a distraction, it impedes or prevents our ability to hear Christ, and certainly our ability to recognize Christ in the person with whom we are angry.

That leads directly into His teaching that we should not bring our gift to the Altar if we are unreconciled with someone. And here the fact that this teaching was filtered through the oral tradition of the worshipping community is central, because this passage directly defies normal emotional experience. Unless we hear this teaching through the lens of prayer, we will misunderstand Jesus’ command as seeming to say that reconciliation with the person must be complete and over before anyone can receive communion. But we all know that is not how reconciliation works—it is not a transaction but a process, and a process that can take years if not decades.

The important subtlety here is not to complete a transaction but to begin a process of reconciliation. That process begins by asking God in prayer for help, and the process continues by being able to pray for this person. When we pray for a person we affirm, perhaps despite our emotional inclinations, that God is active in your life, and He is active in the life of that other person who has something against you. This is hard to recognize when this other person has hurt or wounded us, yet until we able to name this person in prayer, we have not begun the process of reconciliation. And it is beginning the process of reconciliation that Jesus demands of us before we receive Communion. We practice this process of reconciliation—of seeing in another person Jesus Christ—when we exchange the peace. Actively experiencing what it is like to try to recognize in another person Jesus Christ is the sole purpose of the exchange of the peace.

So all of that is a difficult passage, and yet there are more in our Gospel today. We hear that lust is equivalent to adultery; that eyes should be plucked out if they cause sin; same with a sin-causing right hand. Brothers and sisters, hear in these sentences Jesus Christ having a divine sense of humor. He makes demands upon us, yet He gives us maximum aid and support in times of hardship. Let the demands of these difficult passages be soothed with the image of Jesus saying them within something of a wry smile, perhaps a dry, provocative humor. We will not make spiritual progress—that it, we will not pray better nor commit fewer sins—if we have a habitual state of imaginative lust. Take custody of the eyes, Jesus is commanding. Pluck it out, take it away, look somewhere else. And if your hands constantly are the tools for sin—for stealing, for writing sinful thoughts, for hitting someone, for knowingly misguiding people—cut them off, take it away, take custody of your hands. Recognize that Jesus intends them to be His hands, His eyes.

Being mature about our tendencies to sin with our eyes, our hands, our thoughts is how we bear our cross. Being sober and honest about how we have been wounded or hurt by other people is how we bear our cross. So let us keep our true end in sight, and let us always know that the Lord is mighty in power and sees everything; His eyes are on those that fear Him, and He knows every deed we do. He knows that in our weakness we can do nothing good without Him. Let us put our trust in Him, for He is our strength and redeemer.