Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
16 February 2020
Today’s Gospel reading has some very strange sayings of Jesus: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29-30). We are obviously not supposed to take these commands literally. Otherwise, we would all be sitting here with missing eyes and hands. I am not aware of any of Jesus’ followers in the Bible or throughout Christian history who have actually torn out their eyes or cut off their hands as a consequence of sinning.
Jesus is employing a rhetorical device, hyperbole, making exaggerations for dramatic effect. He takes what appears to be a minor offense – lust or anger – and imposes an extreme, violent punishment – physical mutilation – out of all proportion with the offense. This seems absurd, almost comical. I’m not a big Monty Python fan, but it seems like something you would see in the kind of grotesque physical comedy of a Monty Python film – tearing out an eye, cutting off a hand – “it’s just a flesh wound.” So what is the point of the graphic hyperboles in Jesus’ teaching?
The context in which we find these sayings is the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ sayings that lay out his moral teachings. In today’s passage, Jesus takes two basic moral injunctions, namely the Sixth and Seventh of the Ten Commandments – You shall not murder and You shall not commit adultery, and he explains to his followers that it is not enough just to obey the commandments not to murder or commit adultery. Jesus declares that it is no less a sin to become angry or harbor lust: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery”…But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). Jesus thus sets a higher moral and spiritual standard for his followers than what their society expects of them. He takes the old laws and intensifies and radicalizes them.
And this intensification and radicalization take place as Jesus points inward into our minds and hearts, exposing our deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is, in other words, a profound internalization of the law. For followers of Jesus, externally observing the laws through our actions is not enough. He expects complete inner control of our minds and hearts – in effect, moral and spiritual perfection.
I know there are several of you in our parish who are from Methodist backgrounds, and you may know that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a doctrine known as Christian perfection. He wrote a book, in fact, titled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. I have to tread carefully here since I’m not an expert on Methodism, and we do have some experts on Methodism, like Fr. Larry Parrish, a former Methodist minister, and Mr. Isaac Petty, our Postulant for Holy Orders, who has been trained at Nazarene Theological Seminary, deeply rooted in the Wesleyan heritage. As I understand the doctrine, Wesley believed that it was possible that in spite of the shortcomings and limitations of our human condition, we could, through faith and love, attain a state in which we are free from sin. And, of course, there is Biblical basis for this. In the very next section of Matthew that follows today’s reading we find Jesus preaching: “Be perfect, there, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
In our Anglican tradition, we don’t often use the Wesleyan language of perfection. Instead, we prefer to use another word: “holiness.” Wesley talks about holiness as well. By the way, as many of you know, Wesley was an Anglican priest and remained so until his death, so there are clear Anglican influences on his theology and piety.
The word “holiness” is especially dear to us Anglo-Catholics. Some of you may have heard the old Anglo-Catholic slogan: the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. Most interpret the phrase in terms of our glorious liturgy- the sense of holy mystery in our worship, but it applies more broadly to the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Holiness is, indeed, a way of life for us, and it takes on a particular, distinctive form in our tradition.
As you know, St. Mary’s has recently started to offer Daily Mass. We are the only Episcopal church in our diocese to do so. And I remember a few months back when we were discussing and planning this, Fr. Robert Hutcherson, our Rector Emeritus, sent the clergy team an email that eloquently captures the heart of what we do here at St. Mary’s and what gives us our identity. Fr. Hutcherson rejoiced how the Daily Mass will contribute to our catholic piety and discipline. That phrase “catholic piety and discipline” struck me, and I thought about the different ways in which we practice that here at St. Mary’s: Daily Mass, Private Confession, Marian Devotions, Saints’ Feast Days, Morning and Evening Prayer. Soon we will begin the Season of Lent, in which our spiritual discipline will become even more rigorous with fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. Holiness is hard work. It requires intense spiritual training.
Yet, for most of us, no matter how hard we work, we will never attain the state of Christian perfection and holiness in which we will be free of all sin both in action and intention. Can you imagine a sustained mental and spiritual state that has banished forever anger, lust, envy, greed, or any of the vices that plague our daily existence? I certainly cannot. It seems superhuman. But as elusive as such a goal may seem, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. We believe that Jesus lived such a life. He is our model and inspiration for holiness, spiritual perfection. Moreover, we also hold special recognition for the saints, those exceptional individuals in the history of our faith who stand out as exemplars of holiness. For most of us, however, ordinary people that we are, such spiritual maturity and perfection will be difficult to attain in this life.
Dear sisters and brothers, you and I may not be on the path to sainthood, but we, too, are called by Our Lord Jesus Christ to live the life of holiness. Therefore, let us strive to shed ourselves of all the sins that keep us from God and from our neighbor. Reaching deep into our reservoir of faith and love, let us commit ourselves to good works and pure intentions. Let us create in our daily lives the beauty of holiness.
 The quote is from the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). King Arthur has sliced off both arms from the Dark Knight in a duel, but the latter insists: “It’s just a flesh wound.” My thanks to Mr. Isaac Petty for the reference.
 Amy Ogden, “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37,” Working Preacher. https://workingpreacher.org/preaching-aspx?commentary_id=795.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!