Sunday, 13 February 2011

But I say to you... ; a sermon by Anne Le Bas

4th Before Lent 11
Matt 5.21-37

“You have heard it said,” says Jesus in the passage we’ve just heard, “but I say to you” he goes on. Four times he says it, “You have heard it said…but I say to you. “

How do you feel about changing your mind?
Not about what you fancy having for dinner, but about your deeply held beliefs and moral attitudes. Are there things you once thought were wrong, but now accept, or once accepted but now don’t? Are there people or situations you know you once misjudged? If we are human, and honest, there are bound to be times when we realise we’ve got it wrong, when we have to think again. But its not an easy thing to do.

In a previous church I was in there was a man who never used to come up to receive communion. I didn’t ask why – it was his business. One day though, after I’d been there several years, there he was at the altar rail, holding out his hands for the bread and wine. Afterwards he explained that before I arrived, he’d been dead set against women priests, and everyone knew it. Once I was in post, though, he’d quickly realised that it wasn’t a problem after all. He just hadn’t been able to imagine a woman behind the altar. So why had it taken him so long actually to take communion from me? “Ah, well…” he said, “I had always been so outspoken about it that I had painted myself into a corner. And I had to wait for the paint to dry…”

Changing our minds can be difficult and painful. It’s much easier to stay where we are and hold onto our old beliefs about what is right and wrong - even if we don’t really believe them anymore. Our moral attitudes are often deeply ingrained, laid down early in life by parents and teachers, and in the minefield of moral decisions we are called on to make through our lives, it can be a real relief to feel that we’ve got some ready made answers, things we sorted in childhood and have never had to think about again.

The problem is that the answers we learned then may not be enough to see us through. They may not even be right. Our parents and teachers were only human after all, and the lessons they taught us are bound to contain some prejudices and hang-ups along with the wisdom. And new ages raise new dilemmas. Modern medical technology forces us to make moral decisions about IVF conception, stem-cell research and so on - questions previous generations hadn’t even thought of, let alone answered.

Sometimes, too, the answers which were right in one age are wrong in another. Ancient societies, like those which produced the Bible, were normally concerned with the threat of under-population. In an uncertain world, the more children you could have, the better. That shaped their attitudes to the family and sexuality. Now we worry more about over-population. Our priorities have changed, and that affects our moral and social attitudes too.

Making moral decisions isn’t easy. In last week’s sermon I talked about why we try to do good? Are we trying to earn a ticket to heaven, or to build heaven here and now, doing good simply because it is good. But that leads onto an other equally difficult question. What is good? How do we tell the difference between right and wrong? “

It’s not always obvious. We can’t expect to simply coast through our lives on the lessons we were taught in childhood, and in today’s Gospel it is clear that Jesus expects his followers to have the courage to think things through for themselves, to change their minds when they need to.

“You have heard that it was said,” he says to them,”…but I say to you.” So, what does Jesus say? There are four of those sayings in this reading, and I’ll take them in turn.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not murder’” says Jesus. And so have we. It’s there in the Ten Commandments. But murder is more, says Jesus, than just causing physical death. Call someone a fool and you might as well have killed them. He’s overstating the case to make his point, of course. It is hyperbole. But he’s right. If we speak of others as if they are less important, less worthy than us, we pave the way for ignoring their needs and eventually doing them real harm. The Hebrew insult he quotes is “Raka” – it literally means “empty”. They are a waste of space in modern parlance, so why let them take up space at all? The most outrageous examples of cruelty begin when people are dehumanised in the words we use of them. The Nazis likened those they eventually killed to diseases that should be purged. 18th Century slave-traders described their slaves as goods, not human beings. It’s easier to kill people if you don’t think they are people. But if we treat them as rubbish that can be discarded, says Jesus, our own lives become rubbish too, fit only for burning – the hell of fire was Gehenna, not a place of eternal torment originally, but pits where anything unclean was burned in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem.

Secondly Jesus says, “You have heard it said ‘you shall not commit adultery’… but I say everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Like many deeply patriarchal societies, Palestinian Judaism thought that women were dangerous, tempting men off the straight and narrow, in need of control. Any woman who didn’t obey very strict rules of conduct and dress was declaring that she was fair game. It’s wearisomely familiar. “She was asking for it: her skirt was too short.” The truth is, though, that it doesn’t matter how long a woman’s skirt is if this is the attitude of the men around her. Traditional communities in the Middle East, Afghanistan and many other places insist that every inch of a woman’s flesh should be covered up. Before we start feeling superior we should remember that Christian societies have shared this view in the past too. The Victorians thought no respectable woman would reveal her ankles or go out with her head uncovered or her hair loose. And yet there’s no evidence that rape and sexual assault are any less prevalent in societies that think like this, because it’s not the woman’s flesh that is the problem; it’s the man’s mind.

Jesus third saying is probably the most difficult for us. “You have heard it said “Whoever divorces his wife…let him give her a certificate of divorce… but I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery … and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This is probably the hardest of these sayings for us to deal with today. Many people are divorced and remarried, including me, and others will have experienced it in their wider family. So I’m going to take a bit more time over this saying. What sense can we make of it?

It is important to realise that this is the only one of these sayings which has been consistently taken literally by Christians. We call each other fools all the time, but no one tries to pass church laws to stop us. Church courts have never ordered men to pluck out their eyes if they linger too long over the page 3 girls. Swearing by heaven and earth, which I’ll come to in a minute, isn’t something most people get worked up about either. But Jesus words on divorce and remarriage have been taken very literally indeed. Only last week General Synod was debating divorced and remarried people becoming bishops – we used to be excluded from ordination completely. In some denominations divorce and remarriage bars you from receiving communion. The other sayings in this passage are taken as hyperbole, exaggerated for dramatic effect, but these are often taken literally, which is ironic, because this issue – marriage and divorce – is actually the one which is least “portable” from Jesus’ age into our own.

Our idea of marriage is so different from that of Jesus’ day that it is scarcely recognisable as the same thing at all. For a start, Palestinian Judaism – the kind Jesus knew – permitted polygamy. That may surprise you, but it’s true. In fact it required polygamy in some circumstances. If a man’s brother died and his widow was childless, he was obliged to marry her himself. It didn’t make any difference if he was already married. Women had no realistic and respectable way of supporting themselves, so it was far better to be a second wife than on your own. A lone woman often had no choice but prostitution, or accepting the protection of any man who’d take her – with or without marriage. Deliberately to cast a woman off by divorce forced her into sexual relationships that degraded her. It was a cruel and unnecessary act, especially in a polygamous society, where you didn’t need to get rid of her to marry another woman. Divorce saved you the expense and hassle of supporting an unwanted wife, but at what cost to her?

By the way, in case you are wondering how monogamy came to be the norm for Christians, the answer is that it was a Roman custom. Christianity grew up in a Roman world, so it naturally adopted Roman norms, wanting to look respectable in Roman eyes. It could all have been very different, though I hasten to say, I am glad it’s not!

The point Jesus is making here is that we shouldn’t treat those who are dependent on us as if they were disposable. We must live up to our responsibilities towards them, treat them honourably, whatever we feel about them. In another place Jesus has equally strong words for those who give their money to the temple and then claim they can’t afford to look after their elderly relatives. It’s the same principle.

And that thought leads very neatly into the fourth and final saying. “You have heard it said “you shall not swear falsely….but I say to you, ‘do not swear at all, either by heaven or earth or Jerusalem…” Let your yes be yes and your no be no, says Jesus. He calls us to be people of integrity, people who don’t need to invoke the powers of heaven and earth to back us up because our word is enough. He calls us to be people who can be trusted, people who live by principles which we have thought through and made our own, which are rooted and grounded in love and respect for those around us. He calls us to pay most attention not to those who shout loudest, but to those who are most vulnerable. He calls us to do whatever we need to do to make sure that everyone can live with the dignity that should be theirs as children of God, and if that means changing our minds, then we should never be afraid to do so.


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