A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: The Second Sunday after the Travel Ban: February 5, 2017: Matthew 5:13-20

Matthew 5:13-20
5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

5:15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

A Question or Two:

  • What does it mean that we are “saved by grace” and “not by works of Torah?”
  • Does that mean that it does not matter how we treat each other?
  • If it does, why is Jesus so serious about NOT abolishing Torah or the prophets?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is full of little glimpses of powerful ways of seeing the world.

For instance, behind all the customary (and fairly useful) sermonic ways of urging people to be the salt of the earth is an older, and more surprising insight.  I am in favor of Christians remembering that they have a responsibility to act distinctively in our world.  That is all good.  Do that.

But the metaphor of “being salt” has an older history.

The earliest place I have seen it is in reference to the Jews who were forced into exile by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E.  Those Jews were scattered throughout the vast Assyrian Empire and they never returned.  They were lost to history, and are remembered by Jews as being scattered throughout the world, living incognito (unknown, finally, even to themselves) in every culture and on every continent.  Jewish faith understands these hidden Jews to have remembered (even without knowing it) the basic moral practices of Torah, and as such they are a preserving force in the world.  When Jesus addresses his audience as “the salt of the earth,” he is reminding them that Torah observance is not just a “religious thing,” not a set of odd Jewish practices involving seafood and pork and other foods that many non-Jews have no trouble with.  Torah observance is good for the world.  It makes communities gentler and more orderly.  It makes human beings kinder and more tolerant.

Yes, you can show me hyper-observant Jews who have made Torah into a weapon.  No kidding.  And I can show you Christians whom I would not welcome into my house until they backed off their inexcusable actions toward my gay friends and family members.  And President trump (I will capitalize the office, but not the man until the man gives me a reason to respect him) can certainly invent any number of vicious Muslims you should be terrified of.  And if you are really up for it, I can show you violent Hindus, vicious Buddhists, and probably even angry Druids, though they are pretty hard to find, so maybe I have to settle for aggravated Shakers or something.

Doing Torah makes the world a better place, no matter who does it, and Jews are reminded that the world is full of relatives, long-lost though they might be, who preserve the world because they just do.  But that means that strangers (including immigrants and refugees) are to be viewed first as cousins, as sisters, as grandmothers who were exiled and lost.

Imagine how actually believing this might shape the way we listen to the current drumbeat to exclude immigrants.  Hmmm.

Then there is the set of sayings about light and being seen.

You are the light.  You cannot pretend that you are not.  Everyone will see what you do.  So, members of congress, do not imagine that discretion is the better part of valor.  Everyone is watching.  The whole world is watching.  Once again.

Indeed, once again.  Some of us, the old ones of us, remember that chant: The Whole World is Watching.  We remember it from 1968,  from Chicago, from the Democratic National Convention, from the protests in the streets against the war in Vietnam.  The old ones of us (myself included) remember that chant with pain and trepidation.  The world watched as protesters were beaten, as faces were covered with blood, and as ill-prepared protesters acted out their naïve little fantasies of revolution, earning some admiration and much disdain.  I was not in Chicago, but I was in other protesting crowds.  We earned both some admiration and much disdain.  We earned them.  Both.

This is another moment when the whole world is watching.  Canada has offered to do act out what has, historically, been the mission of the United States, enshrined on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

I am quite aware of the political complications involved in this current wrangle.  I actually read politics and actually pay attention.  And I am aware of the awkwardness of some of the sentiments expressed in the poem on the Statue of Liberty.  But notice that, for all the awkward (even insulting) language, the verbs that govern the action are “Give” and “Send,” not “Ban” and “Exclude.”

The whole world is watching, and they are drawing conclusions.  We cannot be hid.  Early American writers even took pride in that statement, and gladly claimed the title, “The City on the Hill.”  Reading history closely helps temper any exuberance we might be tempted to exhibit, but it is still important to notice that the world has long been watching the experiment this nation is engaged in.  And right now, they are drawing honest conclusions, not favorable ones.

Of course, there are among us people who are glad to be afraid of immigrants and are even thrilled to identify Muslims as the Enemy.  I’m not so sure anymore what we can do with people who enjoy fear and anger that much.  I am glad to listen and learn from them when possible, but I am not willing to wait for them to settle their insecurities and antagonisms before we move on as a culture and a community.  Maybe they will just have to catch up when they can.  Or be left behind.  We are done going backwards.  I am just about done slowing down, to tell the truth.

At present, even members of the President’s own White House team are calling what is going on there as a “Keystone Cops” operation.  Rudy Giuliani reports that President trump asked him to find a “legal” way to institute a Muslim ban.  The President’s mouthpieces deny that any such ban was ever contemplated.  The lies swarm thick and furious, like flies around roadkill.  The Electoral College has elected a slapstick clown to be President.  The whole world is watching, and it matters what they see.  Chaotic xenophobia is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words.

For a key to what Jesus had in mind, look at his words about Torah not passing away.

This is not simple moral rigorism, though I rather like the sound of that today: I’d be glad to have someone in the office who was rigorous about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  But the eternal Torah is not about moral rigorism or brittle rigidity.  Eternal Torah is about the simple, and absolute applicability of the moral principles that should govern our life together.  So, Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with God.  President trump has violated each injunction because he believes he can, and besides, his salivating crowds love it.

But Jesus says that all of the principles of Torah are eternally relevant, not because they “earn us salvation” (calm down, Protestants), but because they shape the way we live together.  All the principles are relevant, none have been erased.  Not one letter, homophobes.  Not even a stroke of a letter, xenophobes.  Remember: the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah was a sin against hospitality.  People seeking shelter were put at risk, and the cities were punished.  According to the principles laid out in Torah, we have an absolute responsibility to protect refugees.  So, whoever violates these principles and makes it easy for others to violate them as well….

Just saying.


12 thoughts on “A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: The Second Sunday after the Travel Ban: February 5, 2017: Matthew 5:13-20

  1. I will capitalize the office, but not the man until the man gives me a reason to respect him…

    The fact that he is a human being, a bearer of the image of God, is reason enough.


    1. I suppose my problem is with the word “respect.” All human beings are to be respected. You make a good point. But behavior matters, and respect is also earned, and forfeited. Perhaps I ought to have said that I will also honor the office of Human Being and Bearer of the Image of God. Again, you make a good point. But shameless lying and abusive treatment of others who bear the image of God leads me to draw conclusions about the man. I am stuck on that point, I guess.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Dr. Swanson, I’m an Augie grad and an ELCA pastor, who learned an hour ago that my colleague is too ill to preach tomorrow as planned. Thank you for these reflections shared generously in this format; they will be very helpful as I shape a sermon for tomorrow. Your thoughts and insights are even more helpful to me, personally, as I wrestle with these times.


    1. Susan:
      Thanks for your note. All the best as you preach! I was a parish pastor before I went back to study for my Ph.D., and I am enjoying getting to the discipline of living with the lectionaries texts as I write these little Provocations. I’m glad you to hear that you find them useful.




  3. I have relished your books, and just discovered your blog. Thank you.

    My course is almost the opposite of yours: theater rooted me in faith an religious studies in college; circus took to me to seminary and to doctoral studies in religious education; then I taught in seminary, a D. Min program, and undergraduate. That led to parish work: I am currently serving as an interim. I have not been able to restart a performance group, but your books have inspired many worship activities.

    This particular reflection adds a useful phrase for tomorrow’s prayer: Christ, as we seek to be your light and salt in the world, remind us that the world is watching.


      1. I was introduced to clown ministry while in junior high through my church youth group. (I grew up in Venice FL when Ringling still claimed it as their winter HQ.) Clowning taught me that I loved to teach, so I entered college studying Christian education.

        My first semester of college introduced me to curriculum theory and educational philosophy, specifically through Paulo Freire. I asked why the congregations did not know more about “this stuff” and was told that there was a great absence of discourse around educational thinking in the church and in our culture. I stated (with all the conviction of someone not yet 20) that I was dedicating my life to helping the church explore why teaching is important.

        The summer between junior and senior years I traveled with a circus run by a United Methodist pastor: 33 college students for a summer tour. My final year was trying to discern between seminary or starting my own religious clown troupe / circus (the word “edutainment” has not yet been coined, but that was the idea). Since all the coursework for my major was completed, I finished a minor in psychology and did almost all the coursework for a minor in theater.

        I took a semester off to discern. Being in Florida with lot’s of entertainment, I auditioned at a couple of places. A few churches knew of my clowning and had me do special events for them. I met Steve Smith, then dean of clown college who had me to the circus arena a couple of times as a special guest. Meanwhile a mentoring pastor told me the kinds of questions I was exploring were the kind of questions explored at seminaries, and encouraged me that I could continue to combine religious education and performance while in seminary. I visited three seminaries, and new I belonged at one of them.

        Even as a seminarian, I was trying to explore performance. I was introduced to Floyd Shaffer, and made a pilgrimage to his home about once a semester. I took a year-long internship with another religious circus, turning down over $5000 in scholarships. For a variety of reasons the internship only lasted two weeks. I returned to seminary heart broken but more committed to religious education. I also auditioned for the local renaissance festival. There I found more community than I was experiencing at seminary. That’s when I earnestly began exploring how to use theatrical tools to build faith communities – more than what I do on stage, more than what I with others to prepare to be on stage.

        There’s more to the story, but that’s mostly how circus got me to seminary.


  4. I am out here in Africa. So am probably one face in the crowd of a watching world. And it is with trepidation that I see America transformed. I thank God that the faithful are tough enough to speak out. It helps. We need faith, restraint, and principled resolve, not this ease to violate. We shall pray for you that America hears your call. It cannot be easy up there right now?

    Liked by 1 person

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