Christian Moral Imagination


Listen to this sermon as mp3 audio.

Download a pdf of this sermon suitable for printing.

6th Sunday after Epiphany Year A—02 February 2020
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Hon. Associate Priest

Deuteronomy 10: 12-22; Psalm 119: 1-8; 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9; Matthew 5: 21-37

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Let's begin by recalling the final sentence of last Sunday's Gospel, which leads on to today's Gospel and to Jesus' radical account of Christian moral imagination: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5: 20).

I was brought up with the 'Snakes and Ladders' version of morality. It wasn't really about observing external ethical rules at all, let alone making sure that your heart was right. Instead, it was about prudent self-regard to make sure that you got on in life. It was about keeping up appearances, behaving in a manner appropriate for a respectable lower middle-class boy: reserved, polite, keeping your voice down, no bad language, no answering back. In other words, morality was class ethos, a marker of social superiority when compared with working class Irish Catholics, for instance, along with ethnics and other social inferiors. Here we uncover a key sociological function of 'the law' as a marker of social insidership, as a tool of self-justification, and this attitude is precisely what Jesus criticises in today's Gospel, calling it the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees are presented in Matthew's Gospel as champions of law-abiding rectitude, and in the warning from Jesus, with which I began today, I think Jesus is telling us that we'll never beat the Pharisees at this game. If their invincible rectitude represents the Kingdom of God, then the likes of us won't be getting anywhere near it. But that's not the point. Jesus isn't saying that we have to beat the obsessive rule-bound moralists at their own game, because that version of goodness isn't in tune with the Kingdom of God. We all know these days, in our so-called age of critical theories, and since the 1960s social ferment, that conventional righteousness isn't all its cracked up to be. Conventional moral rules often privilege the powerful at the expense of those who are condemned as unworthy, as undeserving. So, for bankers, since the Royal Commission, there's a get out of jail free card, while for the undeserving poor there's Robo-debt and a cashless welfare card.

Friends, Jesus isn't linking the Kingdom of God with pious rectitude, with the cultivation of purity, and certainly not with being champion moral obsessives like the Pharisees. He's saying instead that the Kingdom of God isn't like this, so that being part of it involves internalising a whole new moral imagination.

Part of this is realising that it's not about failure and punishment, unless of course we want it to be. If we play the rivalry game, and join in today's worsening adversarial mood, so that everyone is our enemy, as we see in the hate-filled world of social media for instance—a world of bullies and trolls and champion haters—then that's what we'll be left with. This is why Jesus takes us today to the roots of God's commandment to do no murder, addressing the underlying cultivation of bitter rivalry and litigiousness that so many people seem so happy with. This is a mindset that luxuriates in taking offence, that obsesses about being wronged, and that too-readily foments the vendettas that bubble over into actual murder. If we don't step back from this whole mindset, Jesus tells us, then it'll eat us alive, like the person he mentions in today's Gospel who won't be reconciled with his adversary, who stubbornly pursues his claim in court, and who ends up losing his case, imprisoned, and undone. If you play that game, Jesus is saying, then that's how it's going to end. Instead, let's try a new game, a game that isn't about 'I'm better than you' and 'you're always wrong', 'you're always insincere'—the all-too-familiar family breakdown game, the culture wars game, the Donald Trump game.

Instead, belonging to the Kingdom of God is marked by humble self-awareness, by mutual respect, by not always insisting on winning. Belonging to the Kingdom of God means learning to recognise what James Alison calls 'junk goodness'—that is, goodness eager to boast of its moral rectitude but which is really an attitude of rivalrous contempt towards other people. This modesty and self-awareness is what we see in our Psalm this morning, in which an honest person admits to God both his desire to live a good life along with his need for God's help. And this help from God is the theme of our Deuteronomy reading, which grounds the moral life in thankfulness for God's mercy. Living this moral life is declared to be for our own benefit in Deuteronomy, but it will also benefit the stranger—the potentially threatening other—who no longer has to be condemned and excluded as an outsider to prop up our own self-declared righteous insidership. Because true righteousness means peace with God, it means peace with others beyond a whole world of self-justifying hostility, and hence it also means peace within ourselves, as we begin to overcome our divided hearts—what the philosopher Hegel called our unhappy consciousness.

Friends, in today's Gospel Jesus is still up on the heights, having given his sermon on the mount, because Matthew wants to present him here as a new Moses, giving a new law. And what we're discovering is that this new law means a change in moral imagination. Jesus takes key injunctions from the ten commandments and deepens them. And what he did for the commandment on murder, as I've just been discussing, he goes on to do with the commandment about adultery.

This part of today's Gospel is bound to be contentious in our age of no fault divorce, an age in which adultery doesn't bear the stigma it once did, but an age when broken hearts, family breakdown, and domestic violence are all too sadly familiar. As for the Church and divorce, we've come to realise that modern companionate marriage in an age of financial and reproductive freedom for women is a very different thing from marriage controlled by kinship requirements in antiquity. We've realised that keeping marriages together at all costs, which we used to insist on, is no longer an adequate solution. Sometimes it's the best thing for all concerned if a dead marriage or a stillborn one is brought to an end, in as humane a manner as possible. Indeed, our Church now allows the remarriage of divorced persons as a sign of God's compassion for human need, and because ours is a God of second chances. So how, then, are we to read Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel, with its restriction on divorce and its delving into the private fantasy life of men?

I'm going to take a particular line here, with the #MeToo movement and its critique of patriarchy in mind. I think that Jesus' teaching in this passage is about pulling entitled and misogynistic men down a peg or two. They lose their right to be rid of an inconvenient wife, which law and custom gave them, just because the arrangement doesn't suit them anymore. Likewise they're the ones who cause adultery if they cast their unwanted wives back onto the marriage market. In addition to which men are called adulterers if they give their minds over to lustful thoughts. Friends, in this teaching Jesus is being more than radical. Previously it was only a married woman who could be guilty of adultery, with the husband to which she belonged deemed to be the injured party. But for Jesus not only can men commit adultery but they can do it just by imaginatively indulging their lusts.

The problem with adultery and divorce here isn't so much that rules are broken but that men have betrayed women, exposing them to unacceptable risk. Abandoned women were vulnerable in that society, and indeed they still are today if you look at the number of divorced Australian women, and especially older ones, who experience housing stress. So I think that Jesus' teaching on divorce is about the protection of women from male irresponsibility and disregard. And I think this naturally extends to the fantasy lives of men, where the dissatisfied, adulterous and wayward impulse is nurtured, and where abusers develop the contemptuous mindset that allows them to demean and mistreat women. Instead, in this age of #MeToo, it's important that men cultivate respect for women and the inner strength to be reliable bosses and colleagues, husbands and fathers, friends and neighbours. This genuine respectful equality with women isn't compatible with a mental life given over to sexual fantasising, and especially these days when online pornography is shaping the sexual tastes and rewiring the brains of a whole generation. Contrary to libertarians like Catharine Lumby, I don't believe that obsessively cultivated private habits won't spill over into disordered external behaviour given enough time and opportunity—that a disordered mental life doesn't risk poisoning actual relationships.

So I read Jesus' teaching on adultery and divorce as anti-patriarchal, and I think that this approach makes best sense of a particularly confronting passage in today's Gospel: about plucking out the right eye, severing the right hand, and hence entering the Kingdom maimed rather than risk missing out. I think the clue here is to think not primarily about loss of body parts but about loss of status. In a patriarchal society of bullish males, making yourself half blind and half crippled would mean radically renouncing your status, your standing, according to the values of that society. So I read this to mean that if your patriarchalism, your born-to-rule masculine sense of entitlement, is getting between you and God, and robbing women of the respect and the security they deserve, then you should act decisively and counterculturally by renouncing that whole patriarchal sensibility, because belonging to the kingdom of God isn't compatible with retaining it.

Then there's Jesus' teaching about not taking oaths in support of any vows we make. Now, you might interpret this literally, as some Christians do who refuse to take oaths when giving testimony in court, but make an affirmation instead. Or you might decide that Jesus is simply commending direct plain speaking and honest dealing, without any window dressing: 'let your yes be yes and your no be no'. But neither of those interpretations account for how Jesus ends this last instruction in today's Gospel: 'anything more than this comes from the evil one'. How might we understand this link between oath taking and the evil one?

Well, if we look ahead in Matthew's Gospel to Good Friday, as presented in Matthew chapter 26, we find what we're looking for, with Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest. Despite all his protestations of loyalty before Jesus' arrest, listen to Peter as joins the circle of Jesus' persecutors around their fire: "'again he denied it with an oath, 'I do not know the man'". And a little later he's at it again: "Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know the man'".

As ever, René Girard nails what's going on. In an anthropological analysis of Peter's oath-taking and what it represents, from his book The Scapegoat, Girard has this to say:

With his oaths and curses, Peter is inviting those who surround him to form a conjuration. Any group of men bound by an oath forms the conjuration, but the term is applied most readily when the group unanimously adopts as their goal the death or loss of a prominent person. The word is equally applied to rites of demonic expulsion and to magical practices intended to counter magic.1

In other words, Matthew's Jesus in our Gospel today condemns the sort of oath taking that accompanies ganging up on someone, binding ourselves to this or that questionable commitment come what may, and hence bearing false witness—here's one more commandment that Jesus is addressing in today's Gospel, against bearing false witness, having previously taken on the commandments against murder and adultery.

In Australian and American politics today we witness plenty of this bearing false witness, representing the sort of conjuration that René Girard associates with Peter's oath-taking at Jesus' expense. We see it when people bind themselves uncritically to political agendas and leaders out of blind loyalty to their political tribe. We see an obsessive refusal to allow facts or compassion to count against such loyalties, however compelling these might be. We see leaders and followers possessed by the herd mind, beyond reason and persuasion.

And, typically, loyalties like this create victims who pay a heavy price. An obvious example is the world of hurt that's coming humanity's way, and especially to the third-world poor, thanks to entrenched climate change denial on the political right. Another example is refusal of compassion to the unborn, when a woman's right to abortion becomes an obsessive commitment on the political left. Instead, Jesus demands critical loyalty to the truth and fairness for others, calling us away from the sort of stubborn belonging at all costs that we see everywhere around us, and that causes so much suffering.

Finally, friends, let me point out that Paul addresses this issue of disordered belonging in our Epistle today, faced by the mean-spirited, immature factionalism of his notorious Corinthian congregation. These Christians prove by their stubborn, divisive attitudes that they've missed out entirely on sharing the mind of Christ, or, in the language we've heard from Jesus today, on inhabiting the Kingdom of God. Paul declares that theirs is an infantile moral imagination, not a free and adult one as Jesus presents it in today's Gospel. It's not the life of spiritual maturity and harmony that beckons us in every Eucharist, shaping our moral imagination beyond the emotionally retarded, petty divisiveness that Paul condemns.

So, friends, this is what having a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees looks like. Beyond entrenched adversarialism, contemptuous patriarchalism and weaponised groupthink, it means discovering a newer, deeper moral universe with no place in it for junk goodness.

The Lord be with you … --------------

[1] René Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore, MD.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 156.


St Philip's Anglican Church, corner Moorhouse and Macpherson Streets, O'Connor, ACT 2602
HTML5