Today we are looking at the readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2020. The readings assigned for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and Matthew 5:21-37. Like last week, there seems to be a common theme running through these passages, at least through Deuteronomy and Matthew. The theme I see is, Here are my rules. Do them, and things will be good.
In Deuteronomy, we hear:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, blah blah blah, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.Deuteronomy 30:16-18
Then Jesus says in Matthew,
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.Matthew 5:29
Again, sheesh. And this is after he redefines the commandments to make it clear that nobody, nobody can succeed in following them. I have a friend who refers to Matthew’s version of Jesus as “Angry Jesus.” And I can see where he gets that from. The Jesus we see it Matthew is calling for a very high level of commitment, and offers some pretty threatening alternatives for that commitment, much like we read in Deuteronomy. It’s not hard to see how some branches of Christianity have turned into a religion focused on morality and ethics. They’re just following one pretty reasonable interpretation of passages like these.
But it’s good to remember that this is also the Jesus whose disciples asked him, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus responded, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.” Jesus is utilizing the Second Use of the Law here, the use that acts as a mirror for people to show them that they are sinful and can never attain the perfection to which they are called. But this use of the Law is not merely to condemn, but rather to drive the sinner to Christ, where there is grace unending. Yes, you have failed and fallen short, but take heart – I have saved you, and you are forgiven and loved!
But it is very easy for people with anxiety disorders, or depression, to hear the Law and fail to hear, or to accept, the Gospel. It is very easy for people to hear these calls to holiness as something they ought to be doing, something they are failing to do, something they will always fail to do, because they are at heart nothing but failures.
This might have been what Martin Luther himself lived with during his days as a monk, when he is said to have gone to his confessor, Staupitz, quite frequently and for such mortal sins as passing wind. The story goes that eventually Staupitz told Luther not to come back until he’d committed some real sin, and that at one point he asked Luther, “Martin, don’t you think that God loves you?” This eventually led Luther to delve into the book of Romans, and eventually to find there a deep understanding of grace, which led in great part to the last five hundred years of church history.
But if Luther did have what we would now call an anxiety disorder, it seems that he overcame it, or at the very least learned to live with it. Anxiety and depression might make some sense of some of the stories of Luther, the times he’s said to have thrown an inkwell at the devil, and perhaps even some of his famous gastrointestinal difficulties. But whatever his problems may or may not have been, the truth is there are people with clinical anxiety and depression in the pews of every congregation, and they too may hear passages like this as knives cutting deep into them. Perhaps they need a Staupitz, too. Perhaps they need to hear beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves them. And hearing it once won’t be enough. They need to hear it over and over again in so many ways. Hell, maybe we all do. But I know for sure that these people do, because I’m one of them. Tell them. Help them to hear it.
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