This passage of scripture has been used to hurt a lot of people, including probably some of you here this morning. It appears this morning because it is mostly likely something we need to talk about. A number of years ago, I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was a woman who was calling ministers to tell her story to. She had told the priest at her church that she wanted to get married and, in the course of the conversation, it came out that she wanted to marry a man who had been divorced and was single parenting two children. It was very much her desire to marry him and love these children as her own. She was instructed by her priest that if she proceeded, she would be placing herself “outside the grace of God” (a phrase that has stuck in my mind since the moment she said it). I told her that there are a number of conversations that would need to be had to see if there marriage was what was best, but frankly that there was nothing she could do to place herself outside the grace and God, including dying. Many months later I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding, kids and all, and their loving commitment to each other has healed a lot of what was broken (and I admire them for it), and it is the sort of healing that we, in all other cases, promote.
What that couple encountered was a very flatfooted, wooden, rigid interpretation of the passage we read this morning. The sayings of Jesus, just like anything else in the Bible, take time, patience, and prayer to understand (This is because the words are meant to affect or change you in a certain way through your effort to understand them). As a general rule, when you encounter hard saying like we have this morning, know that we are not understanding Jesus if what we hear is not “good news” for all. So let’s take a bit of time here to find the good news in these hard sayings of Jesus. The most important thing is to read what Jesus said in light of the whole sermon it is drawn from. Frankly, the best way to read anything is to read the whole thing 2 and understand individual words and passages by how the whole document you are reading uses them. And, in this case, if you read the whole thing, the message is clear and it is certainly not that Jesus came to bring a new, more severe, law than the law of Moses.
This passage we read falls in a section of the Sermon on the Mount where six times Jesus says, “you have heard it said…, but I say unto you…” I’d like to suggest to you that the correct interpretation is the one that explains all of them in the same way and doesn’t pick and choose which ones are rules that we need to follow and which ones are not. Jesus has a consistent pattern of argument in the sermon. Look at the passage in your bulletin.
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not murder’ … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” In other words, the law talks to you about murder, I want to talk to you about the anger driving it in the first place. The law limits the damage, I want to talk to you about its source in the heart. Next he says, “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.” In other words, the law talks to you about adultery, I want to talk to you about misdirected lust. The law limits the damage, I want to talk to you about a cure. The law cares about the outside, I’m worried about the inside. Remember that Jesus is the one who says later in this same Gospel, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees … For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. First clean the inside of the cup,so that the outside also may become clean” (Mt. 23:25). Jesus worries about the heart of the matter, that is, what affects us the most in what it is like to be us.
Jesus says, you have heard that it was said ‘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… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” In other words, the law has this device of swearing an oath to ensure that a word spoken is true (which we still do today), but I say to you that we could become the kind of people where we don’t need anything to strengthen our word. Jesus questions what is happening on the inside that prevents our ‘Yes” from being “Yes” and our ‘No” from being “No”? This is the same Jesus that insisted, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Mt. 15:10).
We can either believe that Jesus imposed upon us a new higher law that outlaws anger, lust, divorce, and any word beyond “yes” and “no”, or, we can understand that Jesus is not establishing any new law beyond that Moses (just as he said in Mt. 5:17), but, is instead promoting in us a profoundly liberating transformation where the inward is truly changed and renewed. That opens up any number of new possibilities for ourselves and those we love and care for. It seems to me that that is the only way to read it. After all, notice that in the same Gospel Jesus proclaims, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Where is that gentle and humble yoke for those Christian leaders who demand more than Moses required without attending to the inner redemption and healing given?
The history of marriage is one where the institution keeps having new jobs added to it. What at one point in history was a business arrangement mostly about property and descendants, has come to be our primary conversation partner and friend, our romantic partner, but also someone who you can share space with on a daily basis, someone who plays on vacation enough like you, but is also the one who takes you to the hospital and important family events, and so on and so on. Christianity’s contribution has been to add yet one more thing, but it is one that makes all the others better. We came to number marriage among the sacraments, that is, every sacrament whether holy communion or baptism is a material delivery mechanism for divine love in a form that we can see and touch. In the sacrament of Christian marriage, the life-long task is to reflect back to your spouse in your own eyes God’s love for them every day in a form they can understand and feel. That love is the right thing for marriage; it gets the heart of the matter, and if your partner gets that part right, then shortcomings in other areas matter less. But any of us who have that spouse job know that we all fall short of that, a lot. In Christian language, we all sin and hopefully learn to confess that and change and hopefully our partners forgive and grow with us in the same way as we forgive and grow with them.
In the fourth Chapter of the Gospel of John, there is a story of Jesus being kind to a woman he met at the well who had had 5 (yes 5!) husbands [for some things more is better, donuts, for example, but I’m not sure husbands are like that]. Fully knowing that long history of failure, Jesus didn’t turn her away, but offered her “living water” assuring her that if she would drink of it it would become in her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” If we read what Jesus actually said, what he is saying is that we live in a world where we take for granted that there is something inevitable about daily murders, lust that doesn’t serve anyone’s good, that divorce is common and inevitable, and where we need constant laws and contracts all the time to ensure that we are being told the truth. The good news of Jesus, and of today’s Gospel reading, is that none if this natural or inevitable.
Jesus knew full well that even if we are not in prison because we are committing outward crimes against the public law, we can be held inwardly captive by our own anger, lust, or any other state of the heart that is closed off from the new life of freedom in Jesus. Jesus is the one who proclaimed, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8). If he has set us free, let us not impose upon ourselves or upon one another, a new slavery. Jesus’ message of the heart’s liberation isn’t just good news for the divorced. It is good news for all of us equally as we all struggle with the difficulties facing our own hearts.
If you are in a marriage that is experiencing the stress of the too many demands we expect that relationship to bear, please be kind to yourself. Be kind to your partner. If you on the other side of a marriage that failed, be kind to yourself, learn all there is to learn, and be willing to change. Know that you are welcome here at Christ’s table in full communion with him and us. If you truly hear what Jesus really said, the married and the unmarried, the angry, and the lustful, can set aside all the guilt, all the condemnations, all the shame, and every feeling of being stained. And, in setting that aside, you are free to set before yourself the real task which is to change and grow from now on and become who God wills for you to be in God’s future. The grace of this liberty accomplishes more than any demand of the law whether it is that of Moses, the Church, or the Commonwealth. That demand to change and grow inwardly, all the way down into our heart of hearts, is the true message of Jesus and it is good news indeed.
May the Christ who said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Mt. 7:7), make room in our hearts so that they are spacious enough for the new things that are prepared for each and every one of us, and may our communion with him and each other inspire us everyday to welcome change and live in expectation that whatever has grown old in us can become new. Amen.