Do you know what sign of the Zodiac you are? Some may and some may not. For some reason growing up I studied the sign of the lion and its attributes which is mine apparently. However, it was always read with a scepticism. It’s probably best that I didn’t mention this to the bishop who ordained me. As pagan as it sounds, being a Leo became in a way, a part of who I am, who I understood myself to be, part of my identity.
And then… after a casual conversation and some subsequent Internet research, things change and so does their interpretation. Also, we now know the signs for the Chinese Calendar which at each Chinese New Year outline our fortunes for the coming year. Suddenly, should someone resurrect the pick-up line from the ‘70’s - “what’s your sign?” - my answer could be a bit complicated. Something I treated as true during my life though as I grew and found understanding I found out it wasn’t. This requires a shift in thinking.
Identity is such an important part of understanding who we are and how we relate to the world. A zodiac sign is something of a trivial example, but changes in identity can have real impact on us – psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. Consider the changes in identity that many of us reading this are preparing to experience. A new year is beginning for all sorts of things as people have changed place, school, occupation and so on. Some of you will have or soon be taking up new positions of ministry.
These aren’t just words to put in front of our names on a business card… they change who we are - not in an ontological sense - but they change how we think about ourselves, they change how we relate to the world and how we think about others – how we witness to the kingdom of heaven come near. As we assume these roles and make them part of ourselves, we do so in concert with a host of other attributes: race, gender, family history, personal experiences, denominational background… the list is endless… and all of which combine to make us who we are, to comprise our identity.
For Jews in Jesus’ day, in addition to the individual factors, Jewish identity was encapsulated in Scripture and traditions. Similar to ancient astrologers who looked to the stars for signs that told them how to order their lives, Jewish people looked to the Law and the Prophets as the vehicle to transmit their epic history, to pass down the requirements that governed human relationships, and to communicate stories to help them understand who their God was and how that God operated in the world – the result being a strong and reliable sense of identity that had sustained them as a people for centuries.
They were well-aware of who they were, where they came from, and what they stood for. If you were to ask them, “what’s your sign?” – I’m guessing they would point to the scrolls of the Torah in the synagogue. Into this climate of traditional self-assurance and religious confidence walks… Jesus. In this week’s scripture reading from Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus is all about changing the meaning of the signs. He expands the definition and scope of the Law.
Jesus is interpreting the Law to express what he sees as its true meaning. He’s saying that just following the rules, just behaving rightly, isn’t enough. Jesus says, go beyond the letter of the law and orient your hearts towards love. Jesus calls his listeners to a whole new way of life, something they had never heard before: live your lives not only based not only based on what the tradition has declared or the rules say… live your lives in love.
Take the law past the point of obligation, past the point of following rules for rules’ sake. Take it to where God intended it to be. Take it to where it becomes love. Jesus challenges those around him to change their identities, to reconstruct human life and relationships in a way that will reflect and embody God and Gods love. It’s shocking, disturbing, as it calls us to re-imagine our identity, and indeed all of life on new terms.
Jesus’ words continually challenge us to see the world with new eyes. We too are called to be watchful for signs of the new and wondrous things that God continues to do around us, through us, and within us. And by the grace of God, may we inspire others to reflect that love in our lives daily.