Year A, Epiphany 6
February 16, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times… But I say to you…”
In this segment of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concerns Himself, and us, with the Law. Torah. When we think of Law, well, when I think of Law, I think of a system of rules; a system of rules that regulate the actions of the members of the group subject to those laws. A Law tells you what you can or cannot do.
That is not, necessarily the only definition of Law, in particular, it is not the Jewish understanding of Torah as said to those of ancient times, that is in the Pentateuch, nor is this the understanding of the Law that Jesus has in mind as He comments on it in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember from last week’s Gospel, because I am sure everyone read their lectionary readings by candlelight during the storm… but what did Jesus say in regards to the law, “I came not to… abolish the Law, but to fulfill.” This is very, very important.
The word Torah is rooted in the Hebrew verb “to instruct.” Not to govern, not to regulate, but to instruct. In the words of the fabulous and recently deceased Jesuit NT scholar Daniel Harrington, “For Jews the Torah was (and still is) the revelation of God’s will, a kind of divine blueprint for action… Acting upon the Torah is the privileged way of responding to the creator God who has entered into Covenant relationship with Israel. It presupposed the prior manifestation of God’s love.” Of course there are concrete demands of behavior and action (thou shall not kill), but the Law, the Torah always has to be considered in the context of covenant, that is in the context of a relationship between God and God’s people. This Law is a way of being given by God to God’s people, it is not just a set of do’s and don’ts. I like to think of the Torah sometimes in the same light as the Laws of Thermodynamics or Conservation of Mass, not do’s and don’ts, but descriptions of how it is and what is wise to even try.
Jesus had an issue with how the Torah was being interpreted in His day. As we talked last week, the Pharisees had taken on a bunker mentality that affected how they interpreted and lived out Torah. They were waiting for the Reign of God to manifest, waiting for the Messiah prophesied of old, they were waiting out the Romans, all in a posture of strict observance of the Law so that they would be blameless at the time of Judgment. They did not think that the reign of God was at hand, yet. All the purity codes, the strict reading of detailed law, exclusion of the unclean… they read the divine blueprint as a set of instructions to be followed to the letter until the Kingdom of God was revealed and all was made whole. What Jesus proclaimed was that the Kingdom of God was at hand so get on with it, start living like that was true.
And Jesus’ primary critique of the Pharisees was that He, Jesus, understood fundamentally that the Kingdom of God WAS at hand, that God was already doing a new and wonderful thing and that the waiting was over. In that light, Jesus’ primary critique was that the Pharisees were being myopic and were adhering to the Letter of the Law, not the Spirit of the Law. Hence, the Sermon on the Mount and the six famous antitheses, the “You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” (We have four antitheses this week, the final two are doozies that that have their own week). In these teachings, Jesus digs into the Torah, in part divining out what the full spirit of the law is, the root of the violations, in part showing the absurdity of trying to live to the exact letter of the Law.
The root of murder is anger, the fruit of unresolved conflict. The root of adultery is lust. Divorce, we’ll treat that in a bit, that one is complicated. The root of swearing oaths is the lack of integrity. The Law, the letter of the Law is insufficient, for in each case, grave inconsistencies with the Kingdom of God slip under the radar of a legalistic approach to Torah as the Pharisees presented it. That would not do.
The letter of the law says don’t murder; don’t commit adultery and the rest of it. But what Jesus is saying, most importantly here, is that whatever fractures relationships is what is problematic. Remember, everything Jesus is saying is said in the light that the Kingdom of God was at hand. And the Kingdom of God is what? A whole complex of right relationships, right? It is relationship fully realized, as our Buddhist friends would say, Right relationships, relationhsips between God and the individual, God and the community, community members with each other, community members with the stranger, and the modern exegete can discern the relationship of God, humanity and the natural world throughout Scripture. The Kingdom of God is made manifest in relationships, relationships like those catalogued in the this part of the Sermon on the Mount; relationships between brother and sister, man and woman, husband and wife, between neighbors and associates. Anything that compromises the sanctity of those relationships is the true violation and those violations, the root violations are the constituent parts of the prohibitions of old. Jesus does not abrogate the old Law, He does not replace it with v. 2.0, but He fills it out, explicates its full implications, and demonstrates how comprehensive the Law can be. He fulfills it.
He also shows how ridiculous it is to try to live by the letter of law as the Pharisees would have Israel do. Would we actually pluck out our eye for letting in lust-inspiring subject matter? Would we really lop off a hand because it is an agent of sin? No, it is hyperbole, literary exaggeration, and throughout the gospels Jesus says rather inflammatory things to shake people up, to inspire reaction, to paint a picture of how ludicrous some ideas can be. The point is, if you are going to be a rigid literalist, a fundamentalist of any kind, your world is going to be very small and very contradicted. That certainly holds true through today.
Concerning Jesus’ antithesis on divorce, I’ll offer a specific clarification. The intention of Christ’s words, like all of His antithesis statements, is to shake people up. All of these statements would have shaken up His contemporaries, and for us moderns, it is particularly confusing and off-putting to read these words about divorce in ignorance of Palestinian Jewish marriage law in the first century of the Common Era.
In the 24th Chapter of Deuteronomy, it was allowed that a man could divorce his wife if “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.” (Deut. 24:1) To be a divorced woman was a terrible thing to be, as you were basically consigned to a life of destitution or prostitution. And it was a privilege of the male, only. Women could not file for divorce for any reason. And adultery, too, was primarily a crime only of women. A man having sexual relationships outside of his marriage was only adultery if the partner was married to someone else, and the adultery was against the other husband; while a woman’s sexual behavior was always linked to only her own marriage. And remember, adultery was a capital offense, death by stoning being the punishment (though how often that happened is debatable). The long and the short of it is that Jesus is saying that divorcing a woman out of hand is tantamount to sentencing her to death. Jesus, if the same marital rules were around today, could just have easily said that divorcing a woman is a death sentence, don’t do it.
But not to let us off the hook, Jesus is pretty clear that divorce was not OK, that the Torah prohibition of divorce was (is) still valid, though from a different, fulfilled perspective. Divorce is a very intimate fracturing of relationship, about the most intimate besides that of Mother and Child. In St. Matthew’s 10th Chapter, Jesus restates the marriage expectation laid out in the first chapter of Genesis, saying the natural order has man joined with woman becoming one flesh, “therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus probably advocated never allowing divorce, but that was an untenable/unhearable argument in his day as there was (and continues to be) such a furor over women’s sexuality that He had to include the caveat about adultery. That’s what the commentators I consulted have to say, at least.
I will offer two “But I say unto you’s” to this antithesis as we who have continued to evolve as human beings in complex societies: 1. It need not be “man and woman” who cling together as one flesh. Let’s be very clear about that. What God desires is that when we find ourselves in intimate relationship, no matter the constellation of men and women involved, man/woman, man/man, woman/woman, whatever, that it be done honestly, authentically and in love, with some notion of commitment, dedication if not permanence as at least an ideal. 2. Some of the “permanent” relationships we find ourselves in need to dissolve for the good of all. Far too much intimate partner violence is perpetuated by the supposed Christ-like suffering of the abused trying to stay married at all cost because Jesus/God/The Church says so. Phooey. Suffering domestic violence helps no one, it is wasted suffering and Christ did not shed a single drop of His precious blood on wasted suffering. You, your children, everyone is better off when an abusive relationship is ended. No one should ever feel scared in their home, ever. No one should ever be hit, ever, for any reason, and that includes children; they count as people, too.
The Torah, as it is and as it is fulfilled by Jesus Christ is an endeavor set in motion by God. It is always fresh, always timely, always relevant and always founded in a community. As one scholar puts is, Torah is “…to view all things in the world with the eyes of God, to distinguish what is right from what is false, to change what is false, and to place everything under the rule of the one God. And we must read Torah, welcome the Law into our lives in the spirit of Jesus. “…that is, out of the strength of the new thing that came into the world with Him, out of His freedom and rationality, his radicality and reverence for God.” AMEN