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Sermon for 3rd before Lent Proper 2 A/Ordinary 26B Matthew 5.21-37/ Mark 9:38-48

January 30, 2014

evil eyeIf your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. Words from the gospel I have just read.

In the name….

What’s your favourite Bible passage? I don’t think anyone would choose this one. And what about fundamentalists who claim to believe that everything in the bible is God’s literal word? You don’t see many blind amputees in the Bible Belt of America. Some have taken it literally – Early church leader Origen castrated himself but he was regarded as a heretic for so doing. Some forms of Sharia law prescribe amputation of the hands for thieves.

But Jesus was a Jew and cutting yourself, even tattoos and piercings are against the Jewish Torah, so self-mutilation is likely not what Jesus is saying.

Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, taught many similar things, though he doesn’t quote this specific verse. What if Christianity hadn’t split from Judaism? We might have followed the development of Jewish thought. There, the eye that causes us to sin becomes the evil eye. And that’s linked to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. And it doesn’t start off evil. In fact, it is an important feature in growing to maturity. Struggle, competition to establish yourself. Without it, a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade (Gen. R. 9:7).

But once we’ve achieved these things, we have to, as it were, cut it out. Because when it gets out of hand it becomes the cause of harm.  Because we start to misuse things the physical body needs to survive.  The need for food becomes gluttony. The need for procreation becomes promiscuity and so on.

The rabbis said that unless it is checked and controlled, the yeẓer ha-ra will grow like habit. At first it resembles the thread of a spider’s web but at the end it is like a stout rope (Suk. 52a).

A parable describes the yeẓer ha-ra as a wayfarer who starts out by being taken in as a guest and ends by making himself the master of the house (ibid. 52b).

Rabbi Steven Lebow sees the yetzer hara as a person’s “dark well of energy. We might understood it in the Freudian sense of the id” he says. Or we might think of the recent discovery of the bad conscience: Research by Oxford Professor Matthew Rushworth has recently discovered the lateral frontal pole. Over each of our eyebrows, something the size of a Brussels sprout. One side is the good conscience, The other side the tempter. Perhaps it’s the tempter who has to be plucked out. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/you-say-lateral-frontal-pole-i-say-that-little-devilangel-that-whispers-in-my-ear-9094043.html

Or perhaps it’s the left brain/right brain idea. That our left brain is where our rational thought is processed and the right where our creative thinking happens. If they get out of balance, some pruning is needed.

For Jewish and other Middle Eastern people, Right is for the clean, left for the unclean. Some people still eat with their right hand. and clean themselves with their left.

“Balance is an integral part of a Jewish lifestyle,” Rabbi Salkin says. “Judaism doesn’t believe in getting rid of the body, in getting rid of desire. The focus is sanctifying what you do. That’s a profoundly humanistic way of looking at the world.”

The trick, according to Judaism, is what you do with what you’ve got. Some rebalancing is needed.

Think of St. Paul, temporarily blinded, on the Damascus road. His rigid adherence to his beliefs had to give way to an acceptance of grace. Think of the rise of fundamentalism. Some parts of the church will continue to become rabidly rigid and rule bound, until they realise that the gospel is not about rules.  For the Gospel to be Good News it has to be proclaimed in a way that shows that it is about relationship.

Think of zealous individuals. Phil is an expert. He works in a high-powered job. He was totally centred on his plans to make his company even more successful. But that meant that his employees, even his wife, were more than a bit scared of him and did exactly as he said. But when a crisis hit the business, he had to accept that his employees and his wife had good ideas. They weren’t as wedded to Phil’s rigid pattern on thinking. Their lateral thinking enabled the firm to meet new challenges.

In order to find this salvation, Phil had to sacrifice a great deal. Previously he had relied upon logic, rationality, and a rigid ego. In the time of crisis these were of no avail. He had to give up the very ego attitudes that had been pillars of his personality up to that time, to sacrifice rationality in order to let in the irrationality of the inner world, to relinquish thinking attitudes in order to feel what his heart had to tell him, and surrender a reliance on will power in order to come into relationship with the soul.

The paradox of the kingdom is that the very things in life that hitherto have given us such support may now have to be sacrificed. One side represents the part of ourselves that is consciously developed; the other side is the part of ourselves of which we are unconscious, since, whereas our right hand does what we will it to, the left hand (for most people) seems clumsy and perverse.  We must at times sacrifice what has been psychologically developed if it so takes over that it excludes our totality. Phil had to sacrifice his “right eye” and “right hand,” but by so doing his “whole body” was saved from hell.  The Kingdom Within – Sanford p.89

I invite those of rigid beliefs to learn from the desert fathers and mothers. They knew no salvation was possible so long as the seeker had his head filled up with concepts, expectations, complacent definitions of God and the world that became false images substituting for God and the world. So their disciples had to be disabused of these clogging illusions, these choking concepts, before the lightning of the Spirit could strike! So they told riddles with no answers.  They fastened spiritual locks that no familiar key might open. Like Jesus, they threw their hearers into confusion, knowing that it is only in the midst of such darkness that the words, “Let there be light!” may be spoken.

I invite those of us who need rebalancing to learn from the rabbis: In the words of Proverbs: He who has a generous eye will be blessed  22:9

Then, in one interpretation of T. S. Eliot:
“….all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When … the fire and the rose are one.”

O almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

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