(DON’T) GIVE ME THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION!
A priest and a nun were travelling home from a conference when their car broke down. They were unable to get it fixed, so they decided to spend the night in a hotel. The only hotel in the town had only one room available.
The Priest said: “Sister, I don’t think the Lord would have a problem, under the circumstances, if we spent the night together in this one room. I’ll sleep on the couch and you have the bed. The nun said, “I think that would be okay.” They prepared for bed and each one took their agreed place in the room. Ten minutes later the nun said, “Father, I’m terribly cold.” The Priest replied: “Okay, I’ll get you a blanket.” He got her a blanket, but ten minutes later, the Nun said: “Father, I’m still really cold.” And the priest very patiently said, “Okay Sister, I’ll get you another blanket.” He got her another blanket, but ten minutes later, the nun said “Father, I’m still cold. You know, I don’t think the Lord would mind if we act as man and wife just for this one night.”
So the Priest said to the nun: “You’re probably right … Get up and get your own blanket.”
It is a bit of unintentional irony that in the appointed readings today we have a reading about divorce the day before Valentine’s Day – as they say in comedy, timing is everything.
We all find ourselves in situations where the rule books don’t help. One of the great ironies of our time is that we have come to realize that sometimes to choose life means we have to reinterpret the Bible from time to time. According to Matthew, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. In the process, a certain amount of reinterpretation was required. Sometimes choosing life means making it up as you go along.
Case in point:
How many of you are close to someone who is divorced?
How many have someone in your immediate family who is divorced?
How many of you are divorced?
That usually involves almost everyone. But until the 1970’s and in the case of some parishes, later, Anglican Church policy around divorce was unbending, which meant that clergy were obliged to refuse all requests for second marriages, and some went so far as to tell the couple they would be living in sin if they proceeded. The result was that thousands who came looking to their church for support, for some sense of acceptance and redemption, ended up going elsewhere (usually either the United Church or to Justices of the Peace) and never again looked to the Anglican church to offer anything relevant to their lives. We wonder now why so many couples are choosing not to enter the marriage arena at all – or not to consult the Church if they do. Perhaps the roots of that go back to that time when the Church was more fond of closing doors on people than opening them.
In this case, to choose life meant that the Church had to recognize the fact that marriages do fail, for a thousand different reasons, and that everyone deserves a second chance.
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching on divorce seems harsh and out of sync with the Jesus who dealt so wisely and graciously with the woman taken in adultery, or with the woman at the well, who had been married five times and was at that point living with a sixth man without being married. In Luke, Jesus tells the scrupulous Pharisees that prostitutes and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom ahead of them. Yet here, in Matthew’s Gospel, there is this apparently absolute and rigid stance. It somehow doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.
Divorce existed in Jesus’ time, but we have to assume it was being abused. Jesus’ comment is not merely a negative – a “thou shalt not” kind of thing – but a positive comment about the importance of loyalty and fidelity in relationships. It’s important to note that his comments were directed at men, because in that patriarchal and misogynistic society, there was a double standard, and men could get away with things while women bore the brunt of the community’s moral outrage. His point about divorce likely has to do with the cavalier way in which men in that society could put aside their wives, often for very little reason – apparently just on a whim – and the women would be often be consigned to a life of poverty and degradation, because a discarded wife was an object of disgrace. Jesus is asking them to look at the law from a larger perspective and not just in terms of what they can get away with – or the bare minimum requirement – but to see it in terms of God’s care and concern for all people. Jesus’ comment is less about divorce per se and more about how the vulnerable – women in particular – are treated.
There was a strong contingent in the early Christian community which wanted to maintain continuity with traditional Jewish religious and moral practices. In the very first generation of Christians, in the mid 1st Century, there was a heated debate about how much and how many of the old rules and laws should be kept. In the end, they decided to let go of almost all of it. It’s helpful to understand that Matthew wrote his Gospel from the perspective of those who wanted to hold on to the past – and not break from tradition.
Jesus was an observant Jew; he accepted recognition as a rabbi. I can well imagine him telling people that he appreciated and respected the ancient commandments. But the rabbis knew that scripture does not cover every possible situation; there are always times when you have to think for yourself, and that in itself is a gift God gives us.
“Happy are they whose way is blameless” today’s Psalm says. Yes, a life without blame would be terrific, but it seems to me that usually means not getting caught, because no one is blameless or perfect – no one is capable of perfect obedience to every aspect of the law (except maybe for this very nice old lady at a seminar I was running one time, who said she had never committed any sin. I didn’t want to argue with her, in case I might cause her to commit her first sin).
There’s the obvious meaning in a law – and there’s the not-so-obvious. To obvious transgressions like murder and adultery, most people would proudly say, “I’ve never done anything like THAT!” (which is a way of implying: Therefore I’m superior).
So Jesus says, No? Really? Have you ever made someone the target or victim of your rage? Have you ever insulted or slurred someone – maybe gossiped about someone and diminished their reputation? Have you ever ridiculed someone or made them look like a fool? Well then you are really no better than someone who murders someone – as the Epistle of John (3:15) says: “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.” OR – have you never looked at someone lustfully – that is, seeing them not as a person in their own right but as an object – as a thing to be used – of course you have.
Of course Jesus is saying that it’s wrong to murder someone, and of course he’s saying that it’s a good thing to be faithful. But he is also saying that nobody’s perfect – there is no one who can say they are morally superior. In fact to think so is more of a fault than someone who acknowledges their failings, and their “poverty of spirit.” The Jesus I know does not let law stand in the way of justice, and does not allow injustice to be excused by the fact that it’s legal. In his teaching, Jesus reveals that law is not a substitute for justice; and laws must not be allowed to become a means of establishing a false sense of superiority. If all are guilty then we all share the blame, and it’s ridiculous to focus the blame on a few scapegoats. Rather than isolate certain people, Jesus says, we’re all in this together – we’re all human, so let’s deal with our issues from that perspective.
The key words here are, “But I say to you …” because they show that Jesus felt free to re-interpret scripture. No doubt he respected the rules and traditions, but again and again he showed them to be part of a living and flexible tradition – open to re-interpretation. That is what it means to choose LIFE – not just forcing ourselves into the rules but having the courage to make faithful and responsible choices. If you recall, Jesus was constantly scolded for breaking the rules.
I think we’re eventually going to discover that God isn’t nearly as interested in some things as we were led to believe. One of the key aspects of the Christian witness is the fact that Christ represents God’s redemption – the fact that God doesn’t hold our failings against us – that we are not forsaken by God if we fail to be perfect (as today’s Psalm implies).
Martin Luther King said “That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.” For Jesus, it’s not just whether something is legal, it’s about whether it’s right. It’s not just what you can get away with or not be blamed for but whether it serves the purpose of love, mutual respect, building up community, etc.
What does it mean to “choose life” in our time and especially for us at St. John’s? I think it means recognizing that we continue to seek a common purpose, not focusing on past failures, or on individual faults, but bearing with one another in weakness and strength, focusing on what is good and positive in each person and in ourselves, and allowing the Spirit of Christ to set us free.
RCL-appointed readings for this Sunday:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Psalm 119:1-8 1 Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways. You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances. I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Matthew 5:21-37 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.