Matthew 5:21-37 (6th Sunday after Epiphany) February 13, 2011
I have married quite a few people in my time as a pastor. Some of them you just know will make it. More than a few are on the fence. Sometimes, I sit down for pre-marital counseling and the couple knows everything about each other — you know they have done their legwork before the vows. Others, I quickly see, have never broached the big issues of life: how to handle money, their view on kids, even religion. It becomes my job to poke around in those areas, to make them think about them. But too often, I meet people who are keen to get to the altar — who see the wedding as the end story, like the big kiss in the movie – and don’t realize the hard work that’s about to come. I suspect that when we talk about 1 in 4 first marriages ending in a divorce in this country, a good percentage of them come from that group. Why do people get married? For love, of course. But a recent Canadian study which asked people why they had gotten married also found some other factors. The most worrisome reasons were: it was the natural thing to do, and pressure from friends and family. Those people — and you probably know a few — drift into marriage without a lot of conscious decision-making. Sometimes it works out. And sometimes it doesn’t. The top reason, in the study by the Vanier Institute for the Family, why people get divorced makes sense in that context: different values and interests.
So the Gospel this morning is going to make more than a few people squirm. This is the tough-talking part of the Sermon on the Mount, the part where Jesus gets down to the brass tacks of the law, and really sticks them in. He’s lulled the crowd with the promise and hope of beatitudes, and then he gets to this part, and suddenly he’s talking about poking out your own eye for even thinking of fooling around on your wife and cutting off your hand. On divorce, he hammers it even harder — only infidelity, he appears to be saying, is grounds for it – and even then getting married again commits the sin of adultery. More than a few pastors have steered away from this gospel.
The mistake that is so often made in reading the Bible, including the New Testament, is not considering the context. Even as the son of God, Jesus still lived in a certain time and place and was certainly a public speaker and teacher who knew his crowd. So many of his parables and metaphors — about slaves and salt for instance — just wouldn’t resonate with us today; and I don’t imagine he’d use them if he was preaching to us in 2011 on the eve of Valentine’s Day. But if we can look beyond the context of the parable for the real message, we also have to do that when the metaphor seems less obvious. After all, could Jesus have really been urging people to pluck out their own eyes for “thinking” about adultery? Was he encouraging people to chop off their hands? No, he wasn’t.
So what was he saying? First of all, back then, divorce was very common, and even easier than it is today. There weren’t laws about the disposition of property or child custody, nor judges that would order couples to marriage counseling. There weren’t even marriage counselors, for that matter. A divorce was a pretty simple act — a husband could get a certificate signed, and that was that — his wife was on her own. That was a wretched fate for most women, who were left without support or family and few resources. But that was how it went.
So Jesus, with his harsh words about divorce is making a strong case for taking marriage seriously. Ultimately, he’s coming to the defense of the women of the time. He’s correcting a clear injustice of those times. Divorce should not happen lightly: people should not be able to discard their spouse without thinking about it. He’s also making the point, that you are never really free of your spouse, or the experience, when you split up. And certainly couples today know this to be true, since even after the split they often have to manage the complications of juggling kids with their former spouse, or, at the very least, the emotional baggage of breaking up. Jesus, in the context where wives, especially, could be so easily discarded, is calling a halt to this practice. He was speaking at a time when women had little power. Today his message would be the same: to take marriage seriously and intentionally, to divorce only as a last resort. It’s not an end that God desires for us. But today, with rules that at least attempt fairness, and where spouses are on a more or less level footing, the context is certainly different.
Now what about adultery? What Jesus says about adultery should also shape his hard pronouncement on divorce. Pluck out your eye? Would that count today for every married guy who’s admired Angelina Jolie on the big screen, and every wife whose gushed over George Clooney? We have interpreted this word literally, to mean the act of physical betrayal in a relationship, which is, no doubt about it, about the worse offence a spouse can commit. But when this word appears in the Bible, it has typically meant something else – more in line with a “breach of relationship” or the breaking of a convenant taken. In this case, that would mean a failure to “honour” our partner. Again what Jesus is stressing is that we should take our role as partners in loving relationships seriously, and do our best to fulfill our obligations to the person we have chosen before God.
How do we that? “Pluck out your eye,” Jesus commands. “Cut off your hand!” To take that literally is to weaken the power of his advice hidden within his directive. Jesus means that to keep our vows, we should avoid the things that tempt us to break them. If you are spending too much time flirting with a colleague and entering into dangerous territory, then it’s your responsibility to pull back. If going out drinking with your buddies on Friday nights makes you act in a way you wouldn’t want your partner to see, then the adult choice is to stop going out (or to stop drinking.) The gospel, in all its parts, is heavily weighted on self-control: controlling our destructive impulses, our anger, our quickness to judge. And Jesus is stressing the same message here: it is our job to live in marriage consciously and responsibly. And Jesus also understood where thoughts lead, even accidentally. Betraying your spouse or getting a divorce doesn’t happen out of the blue. It usually comes at the end of a long path of bad or careless choices. Jesus is calling us to pay attention when those thoughts or seemingly innocent actions risk our feelings for our spouse. How easily does that happen? Busy with work and raising the kids, we take each other for granted for too long, or don’t spend the time we should checking in on our marriage. That’s where Jesus is telling us to turn our eyes back to our partners and refocus.
Now, let’s be honest, nobody is the perfect spouse. We all stumble along the way, and if we are lucky we get forgiven. And that’s the point that hangs over this entire message of the Sermon on the Mount — just as it is the foundation of the gospel. It is the message of forgiveness: that God accepts us despite our mistakes. The heart of the gospel isn’t lost just because you don’t hear it in these particular words from Jesus this morning. Think of it as one of those lectures you might give your delinquent teenager who breaks curfew. Certainly when I did that as a kid, my parents got pretty angry with me, and I received the message loud and clear: “You’ve violated the trust I put in you. You’re in big trouble.” But I also knew that ultimately, my parents loved me and would, after a good grounding, forgive me. There was also a But of compassion in there. And there is always a BUT in the gospel.
That “but” is grace, which always tempers the law. The law is to be our guide, not our terminal burden. We are people who mess up and make mistakes, and yes, get divorced. And I have rarely met a person in that situation who didn’t have regrets about their behaviour, who didn’t wish they could do some things over. Betraying our unions — as we should see “adultery” in this context to mean, however we do it — is sad and tragic, now matter how you look at it. It is nothing to celebrate. Many times it is the result of selfishness or carelessness with another human being, and in that way it is not in step with the gospel. But in his ministry Jesus will stress over and over again that getting out of step with the gospel is not a permanent position. It is place for second chances.