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:

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.