This is one of those gospel readings that might make one wonder why there are not more one-eyed, one-handed Christians. A literal reading and following of this passage might stop anyone in his or her tracks. And in a desert community where eating is done with the right hand and less cleanly activities with the left -- it is even scarier. We might wonder where did that nice Jesus go - with his forgiveness and love? So how are we to make sense of this passage without losing the essential message or watering it down into something like Paul refers to in the letter to the Corinthians? Milk instead of solid food? How does it fit in the word from the Book of Deuteronomy about life and death, prosperity and adversity?
First we look at the context and the culture of Jesus' day. Rhetorical flourishes are common to get people to pay attention. Much like we might say - "oh that happened a million times" when really it happened just a couple of times - the language of Jesus' and others used over the top metaphors and analogies. The call to tear our your eye and cut off your hand (this is you doing it to yourself not someone else deciding you need it) is an attention getting device. It means - listen up - important message. Where we might dismiss the whole message if someone used such an outrageous statement (though I am not sure that is true from my occasional watching of television and reading some blogs), those hearing Jesus would sit up and take notice.
Second we read the whole message of the Gospels - and their continual questions about what it means to follow God in Christ Jesus, to live as he would have us live and to pass on the message to others.
Deuteronomy is written in a time when what seems to be forecast in Moses' day has happened. Looking back at the stories of the people of God - the writer shows why they are in Exile now. The answer is they did not choose life - they chose death. They chose the ways that led them away from living in right relationship with each other and God - instead of that which leads to life. They are no longer living in the land of their ancestors because they did not do what is set down in the commandments. As they look back from being conquered and sent away from their land - it is clear cause and effect.
Paul is writing to that fractious Corinthian congregation. They are arguing over who is the best from externals - who had what baptism. This very jealousy and quarreling shows that they really don't "get it." Among bishops there used to be (maybe still is) an argument like this -- from what line of bishops did one receive one's "bishopness"? Can you trace your laying on of hands back to the earliest bishops of the Anglican-Episcopal tradition and is it the most direct line. (sort of an episcopal genealogy). And heaven forbid for some if a woman bishop was in your lineage!! or even if one of the men helped consecrate a gay bishop or a woman bishop! Definitely shows that one has lost the main point of being a Christian when this sort of quarreling breaks out.
What then are we to understand from our reading from Matthew, today? I think we need to go back to Genesis and its message about human persons being created in the image of God. Whenever we objectify or abuse one another we abuse God. Each of us bears the image of God in the world - we are living images of God. One of the commandments is you shall not make images of God - the making of images allows us to think we can control God. Since each human is the image of God - objectifying anyone is has control as its goal. Humans are to be treasured and loved. Murder is forbidden, of course, but the steps that result in murder, like anger - are also to be noticed and not allowed to grow and spread. Anger turns the other into an object - one cannot see anything good about the other when angry. We start to make them into a thing-- we see that in war - where the people we are fighting have a derogatory name. And how hard it is to continue to hate when we get to know someone's story and life and struggles. We have seen that in the church as gays and lesbians have "come out of the closet" and told their stories and others discovered that the "them" are really our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers, our children.
Talking to each other, becoming reconciled, learning each other's stories, going to those we have offended and making amends - this stops the murderous process of making people into strangers.
Though Jimmy Carter got a lot of "flack" over his lusting in his heart statement - he was alluding to this passage and that when we begin to use people for our own gratification instead of truly offering love and commitment - these are the steps that lead to isolation and loneliness instead of love and community.
When we ask upon reading this lesson from Matthew, where did "nice Jesus" go? We miss the point that in order to love as Christ asked us to love- we are told what will take us away from that ability to love. Of course we have these feelings of anger and desire, but where are they leading and for what purpose? Anger at injustice is one thing - we see Jesus angry in the temple, we see him angry whenever someone is left out of the circle of concern by the community. He turns his anger to action against systems - not against people. He sees that the ways we deal with one another much change at every level. He chooses death on the cross rather than armies of death and destruction. He shows us that relationship and love is more powerful and life giving.
Janani Luwum whom we celebrate this week lived this message:
In 1974 Janani Luwum he became Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire. As we have seen, it was a time of widespread terror. Archbishop Luwum often went personally to the office of the dreaded State Research Bureau to help secure the release of prisoners.
Tension between Church and state worsened in 1976. Religious leaders, including Archbishop Luwum, jointly approached Idi Amin to share their concern. They were rebuffed. But Archbishop Luwum continued to attend Government functions. One of his critics accused him of being on the Government side and he replied: "I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present Government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of."
Early in 1977, there was a small army rebellion that was put down with only seven men dead. However, Amin determined to stamp out all traces of dissent. His men killed thousands, including the entire population of Milton Obote's home village. On Sunday, 30 January, Bishop Festo Kivengere preached on "The Preciousness of Life" to an audience including many high government officials. He denounced the arbitrary bloodletting, and accused the government of abusing the authority that God had entrusted to it. The government responded on the following Saturday (5 February) by an early (1:30am) raid on the home of the Archbishop, Janani Luwum, ostensibly to search for hidden stores of weapons.
The Archbishop called on President Amin to deliver a note of protest, signed by nearly all the bishops of Uganda, against the policies of arbitrary killings and the unexplained disappearances of many persons. Amin accused the Archbishop of treason, produced a document supposedly by former President Obote attesting his guilt, and had the Archbishop and two Cabinet members (both committed Christians) arrested and held for military trial.
On 16 February, the Archbishop and six bishops were tried on a charge of smuggling arms. Archbishop Luwum was not allowed to reply, but shook his head in denial. The President concluded by asking the crowd: "What shall we do with these traitors?" The soldiers replied "Kill him now". The Archbishop was separated from his bishops. As he was taken away Archbishop Luwum turned to his brother bishops and said: "Do not be afraid. I see God's hand in this."
The three (the Archbishop and the two Cabinet members) met briefly with four other prisoners who were awaiting execution, and were permitted to pray with them briefly. Then the three were placed in a Land Rover and not seen alive again by their friends. The government story is that one of the prisoners tried to seize control of the vehicle and that it was wrecked and the passengers killed. The story believed by the Archbishop's supporters is that he refused to sign a confession, was beaten and otherwise abused, and finally shot. His body was placed in a sealed coffin and sent to his native village for burial there. However, the villagers opened the coffin and discovered the bullet holes. In the capital city of Kampala a crowd of about 4,500 gathered for a memorial service beside the grave that had been prepared for him next to that of the martyred bishop Hannington. In Nairobi, the capital of nearby Kenya, about 10,000 gathered for another memorial service. Bishop Kivengere was informed that he was about to be arrested, and he and his family fled to Kenya, as did the widow and orphans of Archbishop Luwum.
The following June, about 25,000 Ugandans came to the capital to celebrate the centennial of the first preaching of the Gospel in their country, among the participants were many who had abandoned Christianity, but who had returned to their Faith as a result of seeing the courage of Archbishop Luwum and his companions in the face of death.