The circumcision of the heart – Fourth Sunday before Lent 2011

The book Deuteronomy is named from the Greek words for “second Law” – the book is a repeat of commandments and regulations for Israel about to enter the Promised Land. But it also addresses the question as to why Israel should keep this Law. In today’s passage, we read of a choice to be made: between life and blessing, if we keep the rules; and death and curse, if we reject them. The key to a blessed prosperous life, whether national or personal, is to shape it by the values enshrined in God’s Law, rather than by turning to the false gods of other values.

An earlier passage in Deuteronomy uses the rather strange image of circumcision to speak of an opening up of the disobedient heart, a renewal at the core of our being, whereby we become profoundly re-shaped by God’s values and radically obedient to his will. For all its insistence on keeping the rules, Deuteronomy is not about mere legalism or external religion; it seeks a transformation of the person.

It is this aspect of the Old Testament Law that Jesus wishes to affirm and develop. He sits lightly to intricate regulations; but he is profoundly demanding about the transformation of our inner values and inner life. In the section of Matthew 5 which we read today, we notice that his language is quite extreme: to call someone “Fool” will send you straight to hell-fire, for instance; or if you are troubled about keeping custody of the eyes, or have wandering hands, you’d better have an amputation. Not only is the language exaggerated, but in practice christian society has not found Jesus’ rules to be workable. For instance, he appears to forbid the taking of oaths; but most Christian traditions continue to require or permit oaths, e.g. when giving testimony in a court of law. The principled stand of the Quakers against oaths serves to point up the established practice, as enshrined, for example, in our Articles of Religion. Similarly, many churches have found ways of dealing with marital breakdown, despite the apparent ban on divorce in our Gospel.

So are we simply ignoring the Gospel, or is it unworkable and so irrelevant? One way of making sense of this is to see Jesus as setting forth the radical nature of the transformation of the inner person. For instance, we use oaths in everyday life because we need to distinguish between words for which we can be held accountable in a court of law, and words for which we are not held accountable.  When you thank Granny profusely at Christmas for the lovely hand-knitted jumper, it is convenient if kindness and diplomacy can outweigh strict truth – because in this case the relationship is much more important than whether you really liked that pink and orange pattern. But of course this can lead to a two-tier approach to honesty; I will tell the truth only when under oath; otherwise expediency will determine. The Quakers saw this, and rejected both oaths and the idea of a double standard – they would be completely honest in everything. This, quite rightly, is the point of Jesus’ teaching – we are to be honest and truthful at all times. Our Article of Religion recognises this, that while it permits the use of Oaths, it still requires honesty in everything – it rejects the double standard. God demands radical honesty and truthfulness. In a similar way, the passages on hatred, lust and divorce show the radical demand to completely reject anything that hates, despises or misuses our fellow-men and women.

Jesus is well aware how deceitful the human heart is. We make regulations and find loop-holes; we are adept at justifiying ourselves. We make and keep rules, in such a way as to leave our inner disobedience untouched. The extremes of his language and the extremes of his ideals bring home to us the inner transformation that God wishes to make in each of us.

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