Posted on by Ms. Katherine Byroade
I recently found myself sitting in the dentist’s chair, learning that I had many cavities to be taken care of, and that I’d need a lot of dental work. It was what I’d been warned about for years—because although I have been a faithful tooth brusher since early childhood, I’d never become a regular flosser.
Oh, from time to time I’d make a resolution and floss a few days in a row. One year I even took it on as my Lenten discipline, which worked out pretty well until after we finished singing “Hail Thee Festival Day” and I promptly forgot where my floss was…
So my dental disaster was clearly my own fault. I’d heard for years about why I should floss. I have close friends who are flossing champions. One, a childhood friend, flosses several times a day. Last year she went to the dentist for the first time in about five years and they were just amazed—her 50-year-old teeth were perfect, just perfect! They were ready to make her their Patient of the Year.
Our religious lives and practices can be a lot like flossing.
We undertake to be kind and compassionate…except for the co-worker who gets on our last nerve, the driver who cuts us off in traffic, the former in-law who you’re happy not to see at the holidays anymore.
Some of us aspire to take on a daily spiritual discipline like reading the bible daily, while others never think about it at all.
Some of us aspire to tithing but find it too great a challenge considering our other obligations and aspirations.
Some of us consider volunteering for that one regular commitment and somehow our daily life gets in the way.
It’s hard to feel you can be as good as you aspire to be.
And a gospel reading like today’s can really make you feel uncomfortable. You know how I know that? Our church school curriculum lessons for 3rd and 4th graders usually discuss the day’s Gospel reading, but when things like “adultery” “divorce” and “swearing falsely” are the topics, well then we focus on the lesson from Deuteronomy??? Because Deuteronomy is known for being so accessible.
But let’s look at where this reading comes from. Jesus has stepped away from the large crowds to teach his disciples. It’s from the Sermon on the Mount, which began with the beatitudes and then moved on to the “salt of the earth” in last week’s gospel lesson. Jesus performs no miracles here, tells no cryptic parables, instead he instructs the disciples in the demands of what it means to follow him. [I’d like to note in our translation that he addresses both brothers and sisters, an indicator that he counted women among his disciples, while older translations just refer to brothers.]
This passage focuses on tough topics and traditionally is very challenging. One path of understanding is to take the whole thing literally—which sets an impossibly high standard and rigid, unyielding rules for Christians. Another is too look at how Jesus teaches and what he is pointing his followers toward.
Over and over Jesus says, “You have heard that it is said…” and then uses contrasting phrasing “But I say to you that…”He sets us up here for something opposing the tradition and the law, but instead he actually takes the law even further, using hyperbole to make his point. And what is his point?
Jesus begins with murder—I think we can all safely agree that murder is a no-no and that Jesus’s followers thought so too—and then looks to where murder starts—in anger and then to where it must end—in reconciliation. To show just how serious he thinks the need for reconciliation is he says, “so when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that you 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.” I’d like to explain exactly he’s proposing here. If you were about to bring a gift to the altar—you were bringing along an animal, usually a sheep. That’s generally at least a hundred pounds of a nervous, unhappy, noisily bleating creature, that you’ve pulled along from the outer court where you’ve purchased it (unless you brought it from home, in which case you’ve come even further) and in any case it’s taken a lot of time and aggravation to get this far. And then Jesus says you’re to search your heart and think about whether or not anyone has a grievance with you, or maybe that you’ve had a problem with someone that has turned into a thing, and says to leave the sheep while you go find that person and get things right between you. Anyone who has ever had a problem with another human being knows that working out your differences takes a while. Meanwhile, what’s happening with that sheep? It’s a frankly ridiculous situation.
Jesus is explaining in this scenario how seriously we must take our relationships with each other. Offering gifts at the Temple was a solemn duty, a duty to God—and what Jesus says here is that our even more solemn duty is to reconcile with our brother or sister. Usually scriptures says we owe God a higher duty, but not here, this is where Jesus is really turning things upside down for his followers. He sees our disharmony among ourselves as a barrier to a right relationship with God that no offering at the altar can bring down. Just because we’re not murdering other people, doesn’t mean that we’re not obligated to make peace with them.
Jesus then talks about adultery, which in Biblical terms involves sexual relations between a married man and a married woman who is not his wife. So for many people, they can say to themselves, “well, I have been faithful in my marriage, so I’m doing fine”, right up until Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He continues with “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away;” Now clearly, this is hyperbole. Jesus’s disciples were no more immune to sexual attraction than the rest of humanity has ever been. The disciples, later apostles, and the early Christians were not known for having plucked their eyes out—this is clearly not what Jesus actually wants us to do. What he’s asking men in the first century to do, and all of us today, is to treat each other with dignity and respect. In a world in which women were literally property—the belongings of their husbands, fathers, or other male relatives, where their sexual chastity determined their value, Jesus identified the lustful look—what we call objectification today—as the problem—and where does that problem lead us?
To divorce. Under Jewish law a man could divorce his wife for almost anything—although generally the accepted reasons were for adultery or something equally terrible, there was a thought in some circles that a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner! It is this latter kind of divorce, the one we might roll our eyes at today after a celebrity divorce following a hasty Las Vegas wedding that Jesus points to, because he’s already excluded “grounds of unchastity”, that Jesus says “causes her to commit adultery”. The reason why is because a divorced woman was without income or protection, who needed to re-marry as soon as possible or risk falling into prostitution, committing adultery under any traditional teaching. Here the man is divorcing the wife for his convenience and causes the woman to commit sin herself, and this was unjust.
Jesus has talked about adultery, and then divorce, but he’s leading into swearing falsely—that is taking an oath you don’t really mean to keep. Divorce—though permitted under the Law—breaks the promises made under the binding of an oath. It’s a big deal, Jesus is saying. You shouldn’t do it for frivolous reasons.
Jesus is pointing to a bigger problem here. In his world, there were regular promises, there were vows and there were oaths. Vows were contingent promises made to God—God had to do something for you for you to do your part. A famous example is Hannah, who promised that if she was given a child, she would give the child to God. And so she brought her son Samuel to Shiloh to be given to God’s service. And then there were oaths, which were promises made to another person (which might include God) which were understood to be trustworthy. The person who makes a promise without an oath can do anything they want, but the person who swears an oath incurs an absolute obligation to carry out those promises. A regular promise, without an oath, assumes no actual obligation—people can’t trust it, so then as the preacher Richard Niell Donovan explains, “people expect anyone making a promise of any importance to swear an oath—and oath taking becomes a casual, even trivial matter.” Some of you may be aware of “pinkie promises” whereby the two people involved link their pinkies together to signify the importance of their pact with each other.
The problem is that people are people. Sadly, even the most solemn pinkie promises are broken. Jesus offers a new standard, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Jesus’s followers are to live honestly, to be so clearly honest in their daily lives that the swearing of an oath is unnecessary—people can trust them absolutely. There are some Christians, notably Quakers, Mennonites, and the Amish, who take this so seriously that they will not take an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom, but the usual interpretation, in the words of the scholar Leon Morris, is that “Jesus’s intent is not to proscribe all oaths, but is rather to insist on honesty whether or not a person is under oath” (Morris, 123-124).
What Jesus has been insisting upon in these teachings is that his followers are called to truthfulness and faithfulness in a world of dishonesty and faithlessness. Jesus calls us to a new life in God. Jesus is pointing to God’s Kingdom, a place where we can live, but he’s pointing out that the path is demanding and that we have to build it ourselves in our relationships with each other. He’s telling us that following him is more than following the rules and going through the motions of religious life—it’s not about how we aren’t murderers or adulterers, or how many sheep we can offer at the Temple. He’s telling us that when we have unresolved problems with those close to us, when we value people solely because we’re sexually attracted to them, and when we casually make solemn vows we’re not following him.
We don’t get to discount the Law, to abandon good behavior, but we are to live and carry out the full intention of the Law—to be people of integrity who are faithful to their promises, people who honor their commitments in marriage and respect those of others, people who honor and respect other people as their fellows rather than use and abandon them. Jesus insists that our love for God and our obedience to the Laws of God must be informed by our relationships with each other. So when we struggle to be our best, when we can’t come through with that daily scripture reading or that extra volunteer commitment, we need to keep in mind that we are called to more than just religious practice but to faithful, honest relationships with each other, that it’s our honesty and integrity in our relationships that build God’s Kingdom on earth.