Splinters, Logs, and Laws 4th Sunday After Epiphany, Year A

Matthew 7:1-6; Galatians 6:1-10

The Elves skip Matthew’s version of Jesus’ sarcastic comment about getting the log out of your own eye before suggesting your neighbor might have a sliver in his.  They cover this saying with Luke’s version on the 8th Sunday in Epiphany, Year C, and pair it with 1 Corinthians 15:51-58.  Of course, whether Christian liturgists and preachers read and deal with those passages depends upon having enough Sundays in Year C before Ash Wednesday.  Galatians 6:1-10 is paired in Proper 9, Year C with Luke’s version of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as they were sent out into the countryside to announce his impending visit.  With the publication of The Authentic Letters of Paul and its revelatory contemporary translation, such traditional pairings of portions of Paul’s letters with snippets from the Gospel have become even less useful.

Matthew puts Jesus’ words into his Sermon in the Mount, and surrounds them with his own pious explanation: “Don’t pass judgment, so you won’t be judged.  Don’t forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back. And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.”  He then quotes what amounts to a cynical joke by Jesus, and follows it up with “Don’t offer to dogs what is sacred, and don’t throw your pearls to pigs, or they’ll trample them underfoot and turn and tear you to shreds.”  The Jesus Seminar scholars thought Jesus might have said something similar about dogs and pigs, but it wouldn’t have been original with him (see The Five Gospels, pp. 153-154).

I suppose there is little difference in action between what the Elves have done with the Revised Common Lectionary and what I am beginning to suggest with my own pairings of letter and gospel.  The difference lies in intent.  The purpose of the RCL is to support and propagate traditional Christian belief; my purpose is to promote a progressive (liberal) Christianity that is relevant to a 21st century cosmology.

So why Galatians 6:1-10 with Matthew 7:1-6?

The scholars who produced The Authentic Letters of Paul (SV) find that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was in response to news that Paul had received (by either letter or messenger) that the community of followers of the Christian Way in Galatia had rejected Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ message and had instead decided to stick to the tried and true Jewish religious practices.  Paul is appalled.  In the first part of the letter (1:10-2:21) we have the only clue Paul provides regarding his own personal and spiritual transformation.  He says,

The person I used to be no longer lives.  God’s Anointed lives in me; and the bodily life I now live I live by the same confident trust in God that the “son of God” had.  He loved me and gave up his life for my benefit.  I do not set aside God’s generosity as if it didn’t matter (as some do).  If acceptance by God comes about through traditional religious observances, then God’s Anointed died for no reason.  Gal. 2:20-21 (SV p. 55).

Throughout this letter, Paul is arguing that those who insist on following the letter of the law – paying strict obedience to the rules for religious practice – run the risk of falling into the “seductive power of corruption” – that is, practicing religious ritual for its own sake, or for the self-satisfaction of the people participating in it.  In Galatians, Paul is talking about circumcision.  These portions of Galatians in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible are obfuscatory to say the least:

Listen!  I Paul am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.  Gal. 5:2-6

But in the hands of the Paul Seminar Scholars:

Now look!  I Paul am telling you: if you get circumcised, God’s Anointed can’t do anything for you.  I tell you as emphatically as I can once again: every person who gets circumcised will have to observe the law in its entirety.  You’ve cut yourself off from the Anointed, you who want to be accepted by God through relying on the law.  You have deprived yourselves of God’s great gift.  We on the other hand, are the ones who by the power of God and on the basis of a complete confidence in God are looking forward to the consummation of our hope.  For those who belong to God’s Anointed Jesus neither the status of circumcision nor the lack of it makes any difference; only confidence in God made effective through love matters.

The sexual metaphor is obvious, and must have caught the attention of those listening to the delivery of the letter: “you’ve cut yourself off from the Anointed [but] . . . We are looking forward to the consummation of our hope. . . .”  That hope is not in an afterlife, but of transformation of life on earth, here and now – a life liberated from the corrupting systems that are codified by the law.  This brings us at last to chapter 6, and specifically to 6:8-10:

If you sow to sustain your earthly life, you will from that earthly life reap corruption, but if you sow for a God-empowered life [by following the example and participating in the program of God’s Anointed], you will from that power reap unending life.  Don’t give up on doing the right thing; the day will come when we’ll reap our harvest, so don’t despair (interpolation mine).

It is important to realize that Paul had an apocalyptic understanding of the future of human kind.  He expected the Christ (God’s Anointed) to return at any moment to transform the world into the realm of God.  So when he talks here about “unending life” that’s what he is talking about.  He concludes: “ . . . as long as we have the opportunity, we should keep doing what’s right for the benefit of all, and especially for those with whom we share our confidence and trust in God.”

In 6:1-4 Paul told the Galatians,

Friends, if someone is found to have strayed off course in some way, you who really experienced God’s power and presence must gently get that person back on track.  And at the same time look out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted.  Shoulder each other’s loads, and in this way you will carry out the “law of God’s Anointed.”  Indeed, if people think they’re something special when they’re not, they are deluding themselves.  You should be brutally honest about your own conduct, and then you will keep your boasting only to yourself and not impose it on somebody else.

Twenty-five (and more) years later, the Gospel writers reported Jesus’ words: “Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye, but overlook the timber in your own? . . . You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.”

Matthew does not actually ignore’s Paul’s argument that what matters is trust in God and the teachings of God’s Anointed, not conventional religious practice.  What has happened is that Matthew has reduced conventional religious practice (which at least bound the people to God’s law) to pious secular behavior.  “Judge not that ye be not judged,” thunders the familiar KJV.  “Don’t forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back. And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you,” warns Matthew – or, in the conventional wisdom that has echoed down the centuries and is firmly ensconced in our own, “what goes around comes around.”

It is impossible to know what the context was, and to whom he was speaking, but Jesus was probably demanding personal accountability, not quid pro quo.  Jesus uses the word “hypocrite” (RSV) or “phony” (SV), and Paul warns against the temptation to self-satisfaction or self-promotion.  Matthew follows up with the caution not to throw your pearls to swine.  Presumably, once one is certain that the log of injustice or wrongful living is gone from one’s own perspective, then it may be permissible to point out the injustice in someone else’s approach to life, but don’t bother with those who are just going to ignore or repudiate your hard-won wisdom.

Matthew’s caveat is certainly attractive, especially in a culture where disagreement so quickly escalates into defamation, if not mutually assured destruction.  Preaching to the choir is far safer and more rewarding than confronting the opposition.  But to listen to Matthew is to miss Jesus’ (and Paul’s) radical point.  First be sure to come from the conviction that to love your enemies is to have no enemies.  Then it may be possible to make a difference in the life of that one who used to be an enemy.  Paul spells this out in Galatians 5:22-26:

The evidence that God’s power is present among us is seen in our selfless love, joyous demeanor, and genuine peace, our long-suffering patience, warm-heartedness, and moral integrity, our trustworthiness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such virtues.  Those who belong to God’s Anointed, Jesus, have crucified their former way of life along with its passions and desires.  If God’s power has given us life, we should live in accordance with God’s power.  Let’s not have any swelled heads, name-callers or backstabbers among us.

He closes using his own hand-writing, which underscores both his point to the Galatians, and Jesus’ point, passed down to us from the earliest recording:

Those who are pressuring you to be circumcised seek only to make themselves look good and then only to avoid being harassed for the Anointed’s cross.  These advocates of circumcision do not observe the law themselves, yet they want you to get circumcised so they can take pride in your altered flesh.  As for me, I absolutely refuse to take pride in anything except the cross of our lord Jesus, God’s Anointed – the same cross that crucified this world for me and me for this world.  Because being circumcised or not being circumcised does not matter; what matters is a new world. 6:12-15 (emphasis mine).

That new world is counter-cultural: What goes around is forgiveness, not judgment; accountability, not impunity; responsibility, not blame.  What comes around is a radical abandonment of self-interest, and a non-violent covenant of justice-compassion and peace.

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