A Metaphor Incarnated: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 6 February 2011

City on a HillRevised Common Lectionary Page for 6 February 2011 (5th Sunday of Epiphany, Year A)

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)Psalm 112:1-9 (10)1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)Matthew 5:13-20

I’ll admit up front that I’m probably too eager to find Plato echoed in the New Testament.  I grant Paul’s ethics for the new Christian community stem mainly from a Christocentric recasting of the Torah of Moses, and John’s light-and-dark imagery is, if I’m honest, closer to what I’ve read in the Dead Sea Scrolls than what I’ve seen in Republic.  But this bit of the Sermon on the Mount has fascinated me ever since I started teaching Republic in its entirety to freshmen.  (I started in 2006.)  This school year, teaching the dialogue for the first time in a Christian-college setting, I assigned the Sermon on the Mount as homework after we’d finished, and the students agreed with me that, even if the man Jesus from Nazareth had never set eyes on the text of the dialogue (I’ll leave alone the question of whether the mind of God eternally contains all the books ever to be written), his upbringing in Roman-occupied, anxious-about-Hellenism Palestine had probably brought him into contact with the ideas in Republic, and the group agreed that this passage about the city on a hill had to be one clue to the atmospheric absorption, if not the reading, of Plato’s philosophy.

In Plato’s most famous dialogue, his main tool for examining the nature of the soul and the goodness of righteousness/justice/morality (to use just three of the words commonly used when translating dikaiosyne) is the analogy between the composite city and the composite human soul, and the mark of goodness in one, for Plato, is the mark of goodness in the other.  In a city, Plato insists, the best way to live is to allow every individual, male or female (this is important) to perform that complex practice that her or his nature fits her or him to do: those gifted for farming will farm, those fierce in the fray will fight, and those with the gifts to be developed into genuine wisdom will rule.  There’s little room for individual social mobility (after all, there’s little reason to stop doing what you do best to do something for which you’re not as well-fitted), but between generations, there is no inertia: the son of a farmer, if he has the spirit to do battle for the city, will be a warrior.  The daughter of a carpenter, if wise, will be a king.  This perfect harmony between ability and responsibility is what constitutes dikaiosyne in the city just as the proper allocation of responsibility in the soul (appetite to stay alive and to make babies, spirit to defend one’s self both from outsiders and from vice, and reason to govern the appetites with the help of the spirit) constitutes righteousness as Plato imagines it.

What’s most interesting about this Gospel passage, if one grants for the sake of argument that Plato’s an influence on it, is how different it stands from Plato’s construction.  Where Plato’s Socrates doubts strongly whether Kallipolis could ever actually exist in the world, given the wretchedness of the average human being, Jesus boldly faces a crowd of Galileans, the backwater people of the Judean world, and says, “You are the light of the world.”  Where Plato’s source of light is a city asserted and dialectically refined but never necessarily embodied, always hiding behind the next negation that a practitioner of dialectic is bound to loose on it, Jesus insists, “A city on a hill cannot be hid.”  And where Plato imagines the good city as the object only of true philosophers’ intellects, Jesus calls on the people before him, working-class and destitute alike, to let their “good works” be the light that illuminates all of humanity.

The move is fascinating in the same way that the Incarnation is fascinating: this is a far cry from the old Hesiod-myths in which Zeus first of all has a story in which he didn’t exist, then did exist, then once he does exist takes on various material bodies so that he can impregnate human girls.  John insists that the logos is in the beginning, that all things are created through the logos, that the logos that becomes flesh was with God and was God.  Likewise, this is neither a story of an Atlantis across the sea where people live reasonably nor a lost city of Shangri-La where folks live in harmony: this is right here, right now, and although I respect the Lutheran impulse to couch the whole thing in one grand hermeneutic joke (it is a scary responsibility to be as well as to talk about a city on a hill), I don’t see any indication that Jesus is crossing his fingers, winking his eye, or crouching, waiting for inevitable failure.  Instead, this is a Platonic metaphor taking shape, on a mountain, just as the grand metaphor  of the Torah, the royal priesthood, took shape at the base of Mount Sinai.

Jesus makes a notably un-Greek move with the last verse in this week’s reading: he calls on people to exceed, to rise above.  Greek ethics, of course, were a series of containments, moderating both the excesses of the appetite and the excesses of the spirit.  “All things in moderation,” to paraphrase the Delphic inscription, warns the reader that to attempt to exceed what is properly righteous is akin to stretching a harp’s string twice as tight once it’s already in tune, in hopes that it will thus be twice as in-tune.  But this is no Aristotelian Jesus in Matthew: this is the Jesus who calls on people to love friend and enemy, family and persecutor, just as the Father sends rain on the righteous and on the wicked.  The completion of dikaiosyne, something that eludes the Pharisees not because they lack the will (they’ve got plenty of that) but because they lack the imagination to open the holiest of holies to the sinner and the tax-collector, Jesus calls for later in the same sermon, still without a hint of irony.  The God who gives generously would have a dikaiosyne that takes the freewheeling shape of limitless generosity, and to do so does not negate Moses but fills what Moses leaves lacking.

May Jesus continue to enrich our imaginations, that our love of righteousness might love the Father’s kind of righteousness.

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