Gospel: Matthew 5:21–37
21"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.
31"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32But 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.
33"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.' 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ,
This morning, as we continue to hear from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew for the third week in a row, there is one word that stands out, there is one word that causes a reaction in all of us….
When we hear the word divorce especially coming from the lips of Jesus, we pay a little closer attention, because it’s something we don’t need a lot of explanation about. We all know what divorce is, and we all have been affected by marriages ending, whether it’s our own, or someone we care about.
Not only do we all know what divorce is, it’s also an issue that happens for everyone to see. It’s not something we can shove and repress into the dark corners of our individual lives, instead, when a marriage ends, people know.
The public visibility of divorce and its prevalence in our lives, is why this word stands out in today’s text. But we, as Christians, don’t do a very good job talking about it. This is because we either think that using shame and disgrace is a good way to keep people from getting divorced. Or, on the other hand, we might simply chose to ignore the issue, and pretend a divorce is no big deal.
For example, a seminary professor once told us about being newly called to a congregation, and a member there came to him and shared that he was divorced. When our professor attempted to offer care by saying something along the lines of “well, that’s ok.” His parishioner stated, no, it’s not, it’s how things are, but it’s not what God intended.”
Now, when we celebrate weddings and anniversaries, the idea of marriage and commitment is on the forefront and the focus. But when marriages end it’s very difficult for us as Christians to acknowledge and deal with the pain and hurt involved when a partnership that we say was formed by God, is over. We, as Christians throw around a lot of lament, blame, and gossip, at these times, but offering grace and support to people getting divorced is not, in my experiences, the norm.
A large part of our inability to be compassionate with people going through something as tough as divorce, and offer God’s grace to them in a way that doesn’t try to just ignore the issue but instead gives comfort and hope, is because we hear Jesus’ words today as authoritative advice for living, and not as words of grace. We hear Jesus teach about divorce, and because it is something concrete in our lives, we put great efforts as human beings into accomplishing “successful marriages.” We offer classes and counseling and write book upon book on the keys or steps or foundations to a happy and healthy marriage. And when a marriage fails, we often find an excuse, or assume one, and then just sort of get on with our lives as a community of faith, even though there’s been painful change.
Perhaps, instead of singling out one section as prescriptive advice, we could hear this passage in its broader context. In the whole of this passage, the theme isn’t divorce. The theme is broken relationships and our own human role in them. It’s telling then, that we hear the word divorce, much more clearly than we hear the word murder, at least I do anyway. We hear Jesus tell us not to get divorced, but the command not to murder just rolls off of us.
But do we hear what Jesus says? Do we hear Jesus say that murder is not just about the physical act itself, but also about our thoughts and our words?
And then, as made famous and truly clarified by Jimmy Carter, Jesus broadens the command against adultery as well. When questioned on whether he’d committed the sin of adultery, Pres. Carter said, “yes, in my heart.” It’s not surprising though, that this admission didn’t create quite the same buzz and reaction as did the actual acts of Pres. Clinton.
This morning, the word divorce stands out, and we hear it in such a literal, instructive manner, and we as Christians take it very seriously, spending a lot of time and energy and effort trying to affect healthy marriages. But then, why don’t we have books out there on the 7 steps to not thinking murderous thoughts and using insulting words?
Or, why is it so easy for us to give advice like, “you need to communicate better?” and think that sometimes two people trying to communicate effectively can seem more foreboding than cutting out our sinful eyes.
In a world of sin and brokenness, why do we shy away from pouring grace into the issue of divorce and separation when it is such a prevalent aspect of our lives together? Is it because by doing so, people may seem to think that we are endorsing divorce as what God wants, or what any of us would start out wanting? Until we change the wedding vows to say, “to have and hold until a time, to be determined” we can be pretty sure of what God wants.
But the absolute truth is that God doesn’t want any of this, God doesn’t want our murder and pain that we cause each other. God doesn’t want the shame we label some with. God doesn’t want the divorce that we have been trying to sinfully give to our creator since the very beginning.
The Good News, is that Jesus isn’t giving us these edicts and commands simply to tell us how to live “good lives.” Jesus tells us these things to illumine our lives to the sinful hurt and death we all bring to God’s creation. And Jesus tells us these things to illuminate even more that God, through Jesus’ love is not going to grant us that separation. Through the death of Jesus, God has shown us this love, and through Jesus’ eternal life, God has given us the hope of new life.
This is the hope that I saw this past week, in attending a marriage of a woman whose parents are divorced, and whose grandparents were divorced. This child of generations of divorce hadn’t given up on marriage, and neither had those who were divorced, as during this celebratory time, they were there supporting, celebrating and loving, even with their exes. This is the new life, the new hope that God brings in the midst of our lives of sin.
This is the new life and hope that God continues to give to sinful generation after sinful generation by baptizing them in waters of love. This is the hope and new life that God gives to us by handing us the gift of Jesus’ broken body and blood, to take away our sin, instead of an ax. It is for this hope and love, for God’s continued commitment to us, in our time of brokenness, that we say, thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,