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“For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Mt. 6).
Here in San Francisco we have been living with Super Bowl controversies since before last summer when Mayor Ed Lee talked about homeless people making way as the city prepared to host the game.
After taking down the advertisements on Embarcadero Center, after the protests, after the objections about traffic and what the city paid to have the Super Bowl here, the rest of the country has joined us in this spirit of dissension.
Cam Newton the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 245 pounds is bigger than any player on the Green Bay Packer’s team that won the first Super Bowl fifty years ago. He could be one of the best athletes of our time. What he does on the field seems positively miraculous to me. It seems like he is capable of anything.
Since losing the Super Bowl on Sunday Newton has been widely criticized for his behavior at the post-game press conference. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, providing only monosyllabic answers, cutting the interview short and being generally moody led Michael Powell in The New York Times to write that he humiliated himself and acted “like a 13-year old.”
Almost right away social media began comparing footage from Newton’s interview with the gracious speech of Peyton Manning, this year’s winning quarterback, from the day Manning lost the Super Bowl two years ago. As always there are two sides to the story. The NFL has had a surprisingly small number of African American quarterbacks and Newton has certainly been caught up narratives that he did not choose. It also matters that Manning is almost forty and Newton is 26.
Still for people who criticize him, Newton seems pretty unrepentant. Cleaning out his locker room on Tuesday he said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
If this were not enough, many people cannot decide whether Beyoncé’s halftime Black Panther tribute was disrespectful of law enforcement or a prophetic message about racial injustice.
At Ash Wednesday how do Christians form moral judgments? How does faith inform our opinions about what is happening around us?
One of teenagers’ favorite expressions these days is simply “don’t judge.” Many young people may see “not judging” as a contrast with what they regard as judgmental institutional church, but I believe that the original impulse for this expression comes from Jesus himself. Jesus tells us not to worry about taking the tiny speck out of someone else’s eye until we take the log out of our own. He also says, “let the one without sin cast the first stone,” and, “judge not lest ye be judged.”
But this does not mean that we should stop caring about what is good and what is bad. At a dinner party a few months ago I met a high school student who couldn’t even bring himself to say that ISIS is wrong to enslave women or terrorize villages or behead journalists. He said that according to their worldview what they were doing is right. For him, not judging means becoming agnostic about the good, the true and the beautiful.
This is not at all what Jesus teaches. There is a spirit of Jesus that we can recognize in people who follow him. It is a way of looking at things and acting that comes out of his teaching.
I often think about how different my life would be and how my experience of the world would have changed if I had not struggled so hard to practice my faith for so many years. One of the most important ways that Christian faith has shaped me has to do with just this question – what is righteousness.
In this respect Christianity seems markedly different from our sister religions Judaism and Islam. I may be wrong about this but for Jews and Muslims it seems genuinely possible to be a righteous person. The laws of these two religions may be very demanding but it is possible to keep these commandments. Eating kosher or halal may be hard in a restaurant, getting up before dawn may seem inconvenient, keeping the Sabbath and refraining from work may mean you have to plan ahead more than you would like or miss certain things, but we can imagine being able to keep these commandments.
Judaism and Islam make it clear just what you need to do to be faithful and I imagine that it would be very comforting to know exactly what your religion demanded of you and probably even more satisfying when you accomplished this. These religions in many ways feel more humane to me by insisting on orthopraxy, that is doing the right thing rather than orthodoxy, which is a concern about right teaching or thinking.
In those religions it doesn’t matter if you are bored while you pray, or that you keep kosher to please your mother, or that you go on Hajj or pilgrimage to make important business connections. You just don’t have to second-guess it. In these religions what you do is what matters.
Perhaps it is because I know a lot more about it, but Christianity seems like a more complicated proposition. Our Ash Wednesday reading illustrates this. Jesus contrasts what we should do with those he calls hypocrites. The Greek word is hupocritai. It has the Greek word krisis or judgment in it and means the same thing that it does in English.
But plainly Jesus means that simply giving the right amount of alms or money to charity, praying the correct way and amount of time, and even fasting in the way that has been taught is quite simply not enough. We also need to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. We have to pray in secret so that our father who sees in secret will reward us. We are required to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven away from the moths and rust (Mt. 6). In Christianity it is not enough to simply do the right thing. Jesus cares about the mental state with which do it.
It makes sense in a way. As human beings we can do terrible things without even seeming to cross a line. I think about married couples. You can say something that seems like nothing in public but which deeply betrays and hurts your spouse. You can kill your marriage with words that no one outside of the couple would recognize as dangerous. Intention matters. When the bully at school says sneeringly, “Nice hair!” we know she means just the opposite.
Let me be clear. Three things distinguish Jesus’ ethics. First, we must do the right thing – no hypocrisy or saying one thing and doing another. Second, we must do it with the right motive (and not for the approval of other people). Third, Jesus makes frankly extreme demands. He asks us to be perfect even as our father is perfect. He tells the rich young man to give away all that he has to follow him. Jesus asks us to love strangers the way we love our families, to not defend ourselves when we are attacked. Finally, Jesus also uses hyperbole. He famously says that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
All this makes me long for a simple religious code with specific rules, a clearly defined way to be righteous. But that is the whole point. Jesus makes impossible demands. He does not give simple rules to follow but maddeningly general commands. He does not care about what you do but what you think, about how you meant what you did. He asks the impossible.
So what is the point of all this? Everyone fails this test without exception. There is no righteous person in the Christian universe. For Christians no set of rules will ever be enough. Jesus does not teach this to make you miserable or frustrated, but because how you feel about yourself is less important than how you care for other people
The direct result of Jesus’ teaching is that no line divides saints from sinners, the pure from the unclean, the justified from the unjustified. In fact, if we get right down to it Jesus throws out the whole idea that we really can be saintly, pure and justified.
Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me he writes about the deep need that white people feel to be exonerated, to be let off the hook for the horrible things that have happened to African American people in the past and going into the future.
Coates will not bend to this need and in many respects Jesus won’t either.
During Lent Christians remember that our time on this planet is finite, from dust we come and to dust we shall return. When the rest of the world points their fingers at the mayors, sports heroes and pop stars, we take this chance to look at our own lives. We celebrate the freedom from the rules that separate us from each other and the joy that arises in our hearts through Christ’s love and forgiveness.
Let us pray: Most gracious God, you show us a vision of what it might mean to be perfect, and you open our eyes to see the ways that we have come up short, so that we might be more understanding with each other. During these forty days of Lent bless us and draw us more closely to the home that we can only find in you. Amen.
 Matier & Ross, “Mayor: Homeless ‘have to leave the street’ for Super Bowl, The San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 2015.
 Michael Powell, “Cam Newton, Sacked Six Times Brings Himself Down,” The New York Times, 8 February 2016.
 “Cam Newton Defends Postgame Behavior after the Super Bowl,” The Associated Press, 9 February 2016.
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2012), 44ff.
 Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2015).