It’s a tough Gospel passage we’ve heard today. If we didn’t wince or feel uncomfortable at some point in it, we probably weren’t listening. Jesus presents his disciples with a long list of challenges. He doesn’t pull his punches, and the spread of those challenges is so wide that something in it must have hit home to all of them, just as it probably did to us. What does he say? “You may not be murderers or adulterers but that doesn’t mean that you have got it all sorted out, that you are off the hook, that nothing needs to change in your life”. I mean, who hasn’t called someone else a fool at some stage? If that’s the level at which we should start to worry, then we’d all better pay attention.
It’s all a bit depressing. How can we ever meet God’s standards if they’re so high? We might as well all give up, do as we please, eat, drink and be merry, because we are never going to be good enough.
That’s so at odds with the general drift of Jesus’ message in the Gospels that we ought to be wary of leaping to conclusions, though. It’s always important to know the context of what we read, and it’s doubly important here.
This is part of a much longer passage, which we now call the “Sermon on the Mount”. Matthew groups together all sorts of sayings of Jesus, probably not all delivered at the same time, because he wants to spark comparisons in people’s minds with another “sermon on the mount” from the Old Testament. He wants his hearers to be reminded of Moses, coming down Mount Sinai with the laws of God inscribed on stone tablets, the laws which would shape their lives in the Promised Land they were going to. Jesus is leading his followers into another Promised Land, the kingdom of God. His words here give them a flavour of what that will be like, and how they can help to make it “on earth as it is in heaven”.
Again and again he repeats words which hammer that home. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you.” God is doing something new, says Jesus, something utterly different, and we will need to change from the inside out if we want to be part of it.
Jesus isn’t just substituting a new set of rules for the old ones, but Christians have often struggled to see that. Let’s face it; we like rules, so long as we think we are on the right side of them. They make life simpler and more predictable. Keep them and you can convince yourself you’re ok.
You mustn’t get angry. You mustn’t call anyone a fool. You mustn’t look at a woman lustfully. You mustn’t divorce your wife, except for adultery, and you mustn’t marry a divorced woman. (Please note that this is framed through a man’s view point). Finally, you mustn’t swear oaths.
It sounds tough, but maybe it’s doable, we think, if we try hard enough. But in practice these rules present us with a whole new set of difficulties. How literally are we meant to take them, for example?
If you can’t call someone a fool, can you insult them in some other way. Does any insult or criticism matter, or is it just this one? And what about the prohibition on getting angry? There are no exceptions given here, yet Jesus himself gets angry, driving the money changers out of the temple for example. Has he broken his own rule?
Some Christians, like the Quakers, have refused to swear oaths in court because of this passage. That’s why you can make an affirmation instead – it was a concession to their consciences. But is Jesus really just talking about what form of words we use?
People haven’t very often cut off their hands or plucked out their eyes in obedience to these verses, but they have done all sorts of other things to “mortify the flesh”. They’ve worn hair shirts, whipped themselves, gone without food, drink and warmth in an attempt to tame what were seen as unruly desires because of this passage. That isn’t a healthy attitude at any level, but it has also created an environment in which abuse thrives. Perpetrators can argue that they are only acting for the good of those they abuse. Just this week we’ve seen a shocking example of this surface, in the abuse committed by John Smyth. One victim, Andrew Watson, now the Bishop of Guildford, commented that John Smyth, “tragically play[ed] on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”
These may seem like extreme examples, and most of us wouldn’t dream of taking these statements of Jesus at face value now, but there’s one passage which, until very recently, was read as an absolute and unchanging prohibition by large swathes of society, and was enshrined in civil as well as religious law. It’s the prohibition on divorce and remarriage. As a divorced and remarried woman myself, I know what it feels like, even in the 21st century, to have to face the accusation that those who challenge the literal interpretation of this passage are going soft on scripture.
But this passage too, needs to be understood in context. Jesus’ words were very much rooted in his own culture, a culture in which men could divorce women on a whim. They would be left destitute, since they couldn’t support themselves independently. They often had to resort to prostitution, or marry any man who would take them in order to survive. The lot of a divorced woman was desperate – and Jesus’ demand that they not be put in that situation makes a lot of sense. But later generations have used his words as a chain to bind people – often those same vulnerable women – instead of letting them find freedom and hope. People have been forced to stay in abusive or loveless marriages because there was no option to do otherwise, and many parts of the church still refuse to allow them to marry again, even if the new marriage is clearly full of healing and hope.
When we rip his words out of their context, we do the exact opposite of what Jesus meant us to do. Jesus challenges us throughout this passage to see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit, to have the courage to ask, “what’s the loving thing to do, the thing that will bring freedom and life?” even if it’s not what “we have heard said in ancient times”. He challenges us to be prepared to think new thoughts and go in new directions if love demands it. When we turn those challenges into rules that oppress people we pervert his intentions completely.
It seems to me that we are doing just that in much of our current debate about homosexuality – something Jesus doesn’t mention here, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s on the agenda again for next week’s General Synod meeting, following the publication of a paper from the House of Bishops. The C of E has been having what were called “Shared Conversations” between people with all sorts of views on homosexuality, including gay, lesbian and transgendered Christians, who paid a considerable emotional cost in taking part. The report calls for a change in “tone and culture”, but as it doesn’t give any indication that policy or practice might change, it’s hard to see how that can happen. The sticking point is, as always, a handful of Bible verses from a culture entirely alien to our own, with meanings we can’t even fully understand, which condemn anything other than heterosexual expressions of love. Like the majority in UK society now, I have no problem with people loving other people. It seems to me that it’s the quality of our relationships that matters, not the gender of the people in them. I long to see a time when all people can live lovingly and faithfully in the relationships to which God calls them, relationships which sustain them, and enrich the rest of us too. But here we are again, going over the same ground. Please pray for the Synod, whatever your views, and for all who are feeling bruised and battered by this ongoing struggle.
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses” said Moses in our first reading. His blueprint for life in the Promised Land included some things we’d still recognise and affirm – treating widows, orphans and strangers fairly, for example. It also included things which we’d now think very odd, though; not eating shellfish, or wearing clothes of mixed fibres, or sowing the seeds of two different crops together. There’s nothing new in having to revisit what seemed like rules set in stone for eternity. Slavery can be, and was, justified from the Bible, well into the 19th century by some Christians. Polygamy was never outlawed in the Bible, and was still very much accepted and acceptable in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, but I doubt you’ll hear calls for its return in General Synod any time soon, however biblical a pattern of marriage it is!
“You have heard it said… but I say to you…” said Jesus to his disciples. But what is it that he says to us? Perhaps, “look again at your own hearts, your own motivations, your unexamined prejudices and assumptions before you sit in judgement on the lives of others.”
If we find ourselves insisting on the enforcement of rules that crush others so that we can stay on the safe side of a punitive and wrathful God, I am sure we have missed the heart of the Gospel. “Those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.” says the Bible. God calls us to treat all people with respect – that’s the underlying message of this Gospel passage - to call no one worthless, to treat no one as a sexual object or a possession, to be people of integrity, whose inner motivations match up with our outer behaviour, letting our “yes be yes” and our “no be no”. That might look different in 2017 than it did in the time of Jesus, but the calling is the same.
Jesus’ words are challenging. They may make us feel uncomfortable, but let’s make sure that is for the right reasons, so that they can guide us into the path that leads to fullness of life, not just for us, but for everyone.