February 12: Five Big Moral Precepts (6 A)

“Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.” Sirach 15:15.

Marc Chagall White Crucifixion

Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” completed in Paris in 1938, at the time of the Kristallnacht depicts the suffering of Jesus and the Jewish people.

Pope Francis admits this is among his favorite religious paintings. The original work can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Here in this painting, you see the corpus wears the tallith, a white prayer shawl with blue strips, that of a devout and observant rabbi.

Indeed, Jesus teaches from this tradition or wisdom and becomes the human face of God among us.

After all, Judaism in all of its variations — is a living, breathing religious, spiritual tradition. And Jesus draws on this spiritual force to bring us to the person of God in himself.

Several years ago, I was on a leadership panel with several women and men who were representatives of a diverse array of religious faiths.

We had the opportunity of addressing a cross-section of undergraduates from across our state on the subject of how religious/spiritual leadership could help advance community solidarity and provide an experience of community service to young adults.

One of the most profound statements came from Rabbi Jeff Shulman of the Congregation Beth Israel of Carmel Valley, California. He spoke of the “moral compass” or the GPS that must direct our lives.

He calls them the “Five Big Moral Precepts” of Judaism.

  1. The sanctity of everyday life.
  2. The repair of a wounded world.
  3. Benevolence and charity
  4. Love your neighbor as yourself.
  5. You shall be holy as your God is holy.

Rabbi Shulman was able to identify within his religious heritage the seeds of what all of us must aspire to — coming as it does from the Torah, the Book of Leviticus, and the Tikkun. That is to live out the best practice of our deeply held religious traditions.

You need not be Jewish to live out these precepts, but Jesus certainly was Jewish and knew this tradition. From these deeply held beliefs, Jesus fashioned his own moral teaching.

So Jesus is the young rabbi, who has just been baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. He called fishermen and others to follow him in his teachings and healing ministry.

He was on his way to Jerusalem, a long journey where he crossed borders. He witnessed good people even among the Samaritans, and yet he was uncomfortable with the religious practices of his own Jews, the scribes and Pharisees.

Scripture scholars speak of five “great discourses” in Matthew’s gospel. The “Sermon on the Mount” of which today’s gospel passage comes, with admonitions about how to achieve holiness. These “instructions about moral life are found in Matthew Chapters 5 to 7.

Some of these statements are perhaps too bold by today’s standards. For example, it’s here where Jesus says: “If your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body, than to have it all cast into Gehenna.”

So it’s vitally important to appreciate the full context for Jesus’s moral teaching. Moreover, how do we empower people to live this moral law, in season and out of season?

On the occasion of the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, among the six short prayers or readings,

Reverend Samuel Rodrigues from Sacramento read the Beatitudes taken from the New Living Translation Bible, a version of the text that I was not familiar with:

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called children of God.

God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

And God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.

Then, Sam Rodriguez skipped one paragraph in Saint Matthew’s text to emphasize the very purpose of Jesus’s teaching that we must be shining examples or a moral force that really matters. This was our reading for last week’s Sunday liturgy.

For you are the light of the world – like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on its stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

Despite all our misgivings about where our country may be headed these days, with changes to come in health care and immigration policy, I believe that the examples of how people live the moral life inspire us. By answering questions about how to live the “good life,” in season and out of season, Jesus was empowering his disciples and followers.

Whether in military service, or service to the community as a Little League coach, or directly lending helping hand to your grandson — you are blessed in God’s eyes; you are the person that makes a difference and teaches by example, and by the light of Christ.

If you can live just one of these beatitudes and have the courage to bring it into the light of day, well, you’re a saint.

Also, Jesus was saying, and we heard this in last week’s gospel: “You are the salt of the earth.”

He reminds us that we must be both salt and light – like a searchlight that probes the heart and soul, but also salt, that preserves the traditions that pass on from believer to believer, and from generation to generation.

Saint Perpetua, Lafayette, CA.

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