Sermon for Third Sunday before Lent High Mass Sunday 12 February 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Deut. 30.15-20; 1 Cor. 3.1-9; Matt. 5.21-37
The last time I preached on today’s Gospel passage was not here but at All Saints, Twickenham.
I said to the congregation: if I were to ask them to raise their right hands, as I was holding mine up at the lectern, how many of them might be missing, And as far as I could see, with my two eyes, no one had gouged out their right eye.
There is an old joke that you can recognize a congregation of real biblical literalists by the missing hands and eyes. I have never encountered such a gathering and nor I suspect have you, because one does not exist.
So-called biblical literalists or fundamentalists or inerrantists, to give them two of their other names, tend to be rather selective: often concentrating on those aspects of faith which directly affect other people rather than themselves. Billy Graham’s son Franklin has told us that refugees and migrants are not a biblical issue. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu might say, “I wonder which Bible he has been reading.”
Biblical literalism is not the same as taking scripture seriously. Scripture is too important in the life of the Church to be left to biblicists.
To take scripture seriously is a more complicated business than pretending it all dropped down from heaven neatly wrapped, or that the “Bible is God’s telephone” or dictating machine, or that its meaning and application is immediately accessible.
It means accepting that different books of the Bible were written by different people, at different times, in different contexts, and for different purposes. No one size explanation or interpretation fits all. Some of them were even written to argue with other books and both would come to be included in the canon of scripture!
It means taking their context and content, language and style, seriously.
It means not reading or preaching into the scriptures our own assumptions and prejudices, but being willing to have them challenged by it.
It means, too, as Fr. Orford was saying to us in his sermon last week, keeping in mind the development of human knowledge in areas like the material and human sciences. During this past week at mass we have been reading through the early chapters of Genesis. When you do that you realise that there are not one but two creation accounts and that they differ. That only really becomes a problem if we try to treat them not as works of theological information about God as creator of all, but as a scientific description or record.
When groups of schoolchildren come to visit the church, one of the things which fascinate them are the fossils to be found in the marble steps of the font, the chancel and the sanctuary. When this church was being built geological discoveries were casting doubt on the traditional chronology of creation. I don’t know what William Butterfield’s views on all this were, but however old these fossils were, he clearly saw them as part of God’s creation which belonged in God’s church.
In our Sunday Gospels this year, we are working through St. Matthew, and at the moment, through the Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”
Then in that repeated “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..,” Jesus speaks as one who has authority over the law; one who comes not to abolish but to radicalise the demands of the law and the prophets.
So, he quotes the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments which were the heart of the Jewish law. This command is not revoked but reaffirmed and then radicalised. No longer, is it just acts of murder which are liable to judgement but the anger which lies at its root.
The form of speech Jesus uses should give us the clue that this is not the language of the lawyer. Matthew shows us Jesus preaching a sermon not writing canon or criminal law here. Here we have something more, much more, than a set of rules that can be kept.
What Jesus does with the root of murder and violence, he repeats with adultery. When Jesus speaks of chopping off your hand or plucking out your eye if they offend, he is using a form of speech, a rhetorical device called “hyperbole” – that is, exaggeration for effect; saying something extreme, impossible, even outrageous, to grab your hearers’ attention; to get your point across, to make sure that your message remains sharp.
Hyperbole comes from the Greek root which means throwing something. Jesus is throwing something into the pool of our minds and consciences to stir up the waters: to challenge us; not just once but over and again.
It we say, that it’s impossible to avoid anger, we will be right, but that is not to let us off the hook. It is not just that we are to ensure that anger does not boil over into words or acts of violence – vital as that is – but that we are to actively seek reconciliation: “If you remember that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift before the altar and go first be reconciled with your brother and sister and then come and offer your gift.”
Then he addresses something which is not prohibited by the law but permitted: the right of a man to divorce his wife which is enshrined in the law of Moses.
To understand how Jesus is radicalising this command, we need to know the context. He was speaking to a situation in which it was possible for a man – but only a man – women had no such right – to simply announce that he was divorcing his wife. There were different schools of thought on the extent to which this right could be exercised: those who limited it to a narrow range of circumstances; others who thought it applied even in quite trivial ones: like burning the supper.
One day last week the front page of the Evening Standard was taken up with an article about a businessman who was demanding a change in the law which provides for a husband to provide lifelong maintenance for a divorced wife. This is not the place to discuss the merits of his case, but simply to say that Jesus was addressing what the consequences for a woman and probably for her children would be. If her family would not take her back – and in a culture in which divorce was seen as shameful – that was all too likely – then the woman’s only option, if she could not marry again, was likely to be prostitution. So Jesus is addressing a situation in which the freedom of men would have dire and abusive consequences for women.
Clearly, that is not the same situation we are facing with the case of someone whose marriage has broken down – perhaps because of abuse, adultery or desertion by their spouse – and then has married or wishes to marry again. That the Gospel writer recognizes that all situations are not the same, is suggested by what is known as the “Matthean exception” – “except on the grounds of unchastity.”
There is an argument going on in the Roman Catholic Church at the moment, one we had somewhat earlier, about whether Jesus’s prohibition of divorce is to be treated as an absolute and whether a second marriage after divorce debars one permanently from receiving Holy Communion.
The Pope’s letter on the “Joy of Love” which came out of the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, suggests that this is a matter for pastoral discernment rather than a blanket legal prohibition.
Our General Synod, you may have noticed, meets this week, and the theological hot potato on its menu is the House of Bishops’ response to the Shared Conversations on Sexuality. I’ve been dutifully reading my way through a considerable postbag on the issue. Much of this correspondence expresses deep hurt and distress on the part of people who hear little or no good news for them in the report. Having been a participant in those Shared Conversations and listened to people speaking bravely and honestly about their situations, and having spent most of my ministry in parishes with significant numbers of gay couples, who have often been examples of Christian life to others, I can understand their reaction. I have tried to respond to those who have written to me. I have not said how I am going to vote. I think I should at least wait and see what the bishops have to say for themselves. We seem to be caught in the tension between law and gospel.