Third Sunday before Lent – High Mass Sunday 16 February 2014 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Third Sunday before Lent – High Mass Sunday 16 February 2014

Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings: Deuteronomy 30.15-end; 1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37

Some of you will have seen All Saints on television on Thursday evening, during the first of two programmes called “The Bible Hunters.”  

I should say, at this point, that all those who appeared looked as I would expect members of All Saints to look during Mass – attentive and prayerful.

The subject was the 19th century quest for ancient manuscripts of the scriptures in order to find the most ancient texts available and provide more accurate translations. 

These newly-discovered texts, along with the rise of critical scholarship, caused consternation among many Christians who, if they lived in the English-speaking world, had assumed that the King James Version had been directly dictated by God. In fact it was the work of several teams of translators working with the best manuscripts then available.

This is a sermon not a lecture on historical criticism of the Bible, so let’s turn to our readings.

However conservative, even fundamentalist, a Christian congregation might be on matters of biblical inspiration and interpretation, I have never encountered one in which some of the words of Jesus in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount have been taken literally.  When I was at a service at All Souls recently, I noticed no more hands lopped off or eyes gouged out than I would expect to see here.

Our readings began with Moses addressing the people of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy: setting before them the Law or Instruction of God – which would be the guiding rule of their communal life as the people of God.  This is part of Moses’ long farewell address to the people, 18 chapters of it. (I promise that when I retire I will not go on at anything like that length.)

Matthew pictures Jesus going up the mountain, sitting down – as a teacher would – with his disciples gathered around him and opening his mouth to teach them in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount.  In other words, Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, the greater prophet promised in Deuteronomy. Jesus is the new and ultimate interpreter of the Law of God. 

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus speak of the purpose of his coming being to fulfil the law.  He fulfils it both by interpreting its meaning and by living that out fully in love of God and neighbour. He then said that, unless the righteousness of his disciples exceeded that of the scribes and the pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now he begins to spell out the content of that righteousness, how it is to be lived, in a series of  case studies or contrasts in which he radicalises it: “You have heard it said that……but I say to you.” 

Common to the instances chosen is the sense that righteous behaviour has to do with the heart and attitude rather than just with external prescriptions.

That concern is particularly clear in the first ruling. The old commandment simply stated, “You shall not murder.”  Jesus radicalises this by going to the heart and addressing the anger that can lead to a whole scale of insult and injury to others, of which murder would simply be an extreme outcome.

Jesus does not overturn the prohibition on murder – the killing of a fellow creature of God. He deepens the command by applying it to motive as well as to action – the thoughts and impulses which lead to murder, which generate the anger which spills over into violence and death.

All too often, however much we abhor the anger of others, we regard our own anger as justifiable. My indignation is always righteous.  Yours is always wrong.  Like many other things in life, anger is habit-forming, even addictive.  We become de-sensitised by it and to it.  We lose our temper more quickly.  We refuse to forgive more stubbornly. Our standard response to something we dislike or disagree with is often expressed in extravagant language. A whole class of tabloid newspaper columnists have outrage as their stock in trade.  Soap operas, as any episode of Coronation Street or East Enders demonstrates, regard this as the normal form of human discourse. 

The positive antidote is reconciliation with an alienated brother or sister, a duty so supremely important as to warrant postponing the offering of a gift to God in the Temple (mercy before sacrifice!)

These verses are an example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole: extreme or exaggerated examples said for effect. The advice is not very practical. If you had trekked up from Nazareth to Jerusalem, it would hardly have been possible to leave an offering unattended in front of the altar, while you went back home to be reconciled with Mrs. Mordecai next door.  Jesus is speaking for dramatic effect.  Whatever our gift to God, its acceptance is conditional upon honest repentance concerning the ways in which we have injured our neighbours.

Notice that Jesus does not say: “if you remember that you have something against your brother…” but “of you remember   –   or suspect   –   that your brother or sister has something against you.” It is not simply a matter of dealing with our own feelings of anger, but positively going out to recognise those of the aggrieved party and seeking to defuse them.

The advice to settle out of court is more than a piece of worldly wisdom.  It reinforces the supreme importance of reconciliation, with a reminder of our accountability before the tribunal of God, a prominent theme in Matthew. God’s rule is about to come. There is still time for repentance, but we must seize the opportunity before it is too late.

The same radical sense, going beyond the literal to a deeper intention, is clear in the next ruling, dealing with sexual behaviour.  The old commandment simply forbade adultery. This was seen as a form of theft.  It deprived a husband of his exclusive rights over his wife and so rendered her damaged goods. 

In a way that sounds strikingly contemporary, Jesus insists that the problem really begins with the perception: with a man’s fundamental attitude towards a woman:  Is she simply an object for sexual exploitation; or a fellow human being, with whom all our relations, including the sexual, must be based on equality or relationship, fidelity and consent?  

Jewish writings often warned that in sexual matters the thought is father to the deed. What is new here comes from the context in Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent life of the church, where women were not avoided as seductresses but welcomed as sisters. It is not forbidden to look at a woman, but only to look at her “for the purpose of lusting after her, ” to use a more literal translation. The new relationship with women among Jesus’ followers required of men a new kind of self-discipline. If that were the case in the time of Jesus and Matthew, it is just as much if not more so now.

While we might wince at the thought of cutting off a hand of gouging out an eye, what Jesus says next and the way it has been interpreted causes real rather than just imaginary pain to many within the Church as well as outside it. Few of us do not have relations or friends who are divorced.  And we know the pain and grief experienced by many. 

Jesus is not abolishing any Old Testament law here.  Divorce is not commanded in Deuteronomy 24.1, but rather it is acknowledged and regulated. Jesus goes behind the regulation of divorce to God’s intention regarding marriage. 

The law of Moses specified a divorce procedure. If a man found something about his wife objectionable, it could be something as trivial as her cooking, he could write a certificate of divorce and send her away. This law assumes a male-dominated world, one where men are in charge and make all decisions.  The law, as it stands in Deuteronomy, does not directly challenge – indeed it protects – this male control, but it does put some constraints on it.  The requirement to write a certificate of divorce gave at least a small measure of protection to the woman, for it certified that the woman had indeed been divorced by her husband and allowed her to be remarried without the suspicion of adultery.

We must see this Old Testament divorce law in its own social context in the ancient world, a patriarchal world in which a wife was the legal property of her husband.  The law moves, then, in two opposite directions at the same time; it both upholds this patriarchal society and works to change it to some degree. The Old Testament divorce law reflects the prevailing social customs and simply outlines the process for powerful husbands properly to dispose of powerless wives property, but it also modifies this absolute power of men over women by saying, in effect, “You must protect her by providing a certificate of divorce.”

This remains a pastoral and legal problem in Orthodox Judaism, in cases where husbands who have abandoned their wives refuse to write a certificate, a “Get”, so the wife is unable to remarry.

Our current problems with the horrors of female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and honour killings, all stem from such views of girls and women as property.  Nor should we think such problems are restricted to immigrant communities, when 30% of women in our society report that they have been victims of domestic abuse.

But the question for Jesus is what is at the heart of this divorce law?  Is it on the side of the law that endorses the male prerogative to rid himself, without any moral qualm, of his wife whenever he feels like it, so long as he fills out the proper papers?  Or is it on the side of protection for the woman and the valuing of her person?

Jesus’s statement leaves no doubt. There is no divorce procedure which leaves a man with clean hands. To abandon his wife, with our without a certificate, is to treat her as worthless and to be guilty of destroying her as a person. 

Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount still assumes that divorce is always initiated by men.  The parallel statement in Mark, which evidently reflected different social conditions, adds the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband.

Jesus is clearly against divorce; although an exception is made for “unchastity.”  This translates a Greek word whose meaning is unclear.  It could mean almost any form of sexual aberration, but here probably means adultery or incest.

But the main point is that Jesus allows no room for the practice of divorce in a culture where it is an assault on the value of persons, an abuse of power, and a trivialising of faithful commitments.

What are we to make of this today, in a society in which divorce is so common that hardly a family is not touched by it?  Is divorce beyond the bounds of the Christian faith? Is remarriage forbidden by the Sermon on the Mount? 

In an environment where commitments are regarded as disposable, and where divorce can seem the easy option, we ought to take Jesus’ words about the permanency of commitment seriously.  However, even in a culture where divorce is so common, marriage in most cases is still taken quite seriously, and divorce is a grave, even tragic, matter. Not many marriages end easily. There is usually great cost, much pain, and deep wounds.  There are some who leave marriages casually, but most have done so because they have had to. What do the words of Jesus mean to such people?

We need, first, to accept that the word “divorce” in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean exactly what it means to day.  What was meant then, we would now call abandonment – someone simply walking out on the woman – or more likely throwing her out. 

The most important need is to discern what lies at the heart of Jesus’ words, just as he discerned what lay at the heart of the law of Moses. Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people that expresses, in their mutual faithfulness, the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honour for persons. In Jesus’ day, the customs of divorce were a direct assault on these values.

Today, a hopelessly broken marriage can itself sometimes be such an assault.  A marriage can become distorted. It can betray its intended purposes and become a place where people are in physical or mental danger, where they are tragically dishonest and mutually destructive. Jesus’ words about divorce are spoken to preserve the value of the people in marriages.  When a marriage becomes the situation in which people destroy each other, we must ask how that safety, nurture and honour of the marriage partners can best be preserved. This means viewing with compassion, people and their relationships, rather than simply defending the institution of marriage in the abstract. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage. 

As his fuller treatment of this issue in Matthew 19.3-12, we see Jesus expressing concern for the rights of women. Whoever divorced his wife deprived her of her right to support – so that she would have to enter a second marriage in order to survive – or worse still, be driven into prostitution.

When we interpret these verses we must be careful to not turn into law what is presented as an evangelical counsel.  This is in fact what the Church has done in the past: divorce came to be seen as the only unforgivable sin.  Those who remarried again after divorce were excommunicated.  (This is still the official position of the Roman Catholic Church – but one that is being openly questioned, even by bishops as well as laypeople and parish clergy.)  None of the other contrasts in the Sermon on the Mount is turned into law. 

While Jesus points to God’s ultimate will for men and women, there are numerous instances in which a marriage is no longer real, whether because of infidelity, neglect, abuse, failure to communicate, or unrealistic expectations.  Every effort should be made to redeem fractured marriages, but sometimes we have to accept that they are beyond repair.  Then divorce, sad and painful as it is, may not just be the lesser of two evils, but a way forward. 

Well, I have gone on long enough, so we will have to leave the swearing of oaths to another time.