Matthew 5:21-37—6th Sunday after Epiphany February 16, 2014

At Northwestern University, a class called Marriage 101 has students lining up at the door. It is not the traditional marriage prep course – or very similar to the ones universities used to offer decades ago in a much different time – and it’s not particularly lovey-dovey. University students are presented with a pragmatic view of marriage, and the course texts are predominantly scientific journal articles on marriage. The idea is that the course lectures – the term papers that include interviews with marriage couples – will make students wiser and more realistic when they enter into long-term relationships down the road. 

When it comes to modern marriages and break-ups, parts of our gospel this morning have to be placed in context. Certainly, Jesus would not celebrate our current divorce trends, but I wonder, in fact, if Jesus would be so severe speaking to us today. In that time, when men could easily set their wives aside – leaving them powerless and impoverished, Jesus was speaking out against this arbitrary law. He was saying the bar for divorce had to be higher, and that setting a wife aside without cause and choosing someone else, was the same as committing adultery. He notably doesn’t mention husbands, who held all the cards back then. For a woman, already without power and independence and financial security, to be cast off, was a terrible fate, even if she was lucky enough to have family to take her in. It is, however, a mistake to apply those particular words of Jesus to our current day.

There is an important part of the gospel that should speak to us more directly, and we should break it apart from the rest. In the opening, Jesus is warning the followers not to be too quick to rely on the courts – to try first to settle disputes, not by law, but by understanding. Try to reconcile, he says, to seek out the person, and find ways to settle differences. His use of the word “reconcile” is important, because it suggests reaching a resolution of the facts, even an agreement to disagree, to finding a middle ground. That is the role of grace – to see a situation from another’s perspective, to recognize your own role in the dispute, and, in the end, to seek the understanding that must always come before mercy. Reconciliation, as Jesus describes it, is not a solitary act, but a coming together to find a solution. To rely blindly on the law without context, he warns, is costly, both personally and financially. Surely, even in these modern times – perhaps especially in these times – we know this to be true.

In the second part of the gospel, Jesus gets especially grim, speaking about adultery. On first read, it all seems over the top – even looking at a woman with lust, he says, is equal to adultery. But again, if you set his words in the context of his time, you might interpret it differently: you might see that Jesus was also making a bold statement about the right of women to privacy, to their own bodies, to their own choices. Ultimately, of course, we can’t avoid it: Jesus clearly believed in the sanctity of marriage, and he is harsh in his defense of that. But, as the gospel clearly demonstrates over and over again, Jesus was also a leader who lived solidly in his day, who understood culture, and how to reach into the lives of people.  If he looked around at our current issues, recognizing our need for understanding and grace, would Jesus be so harsh a judge?

That said, he does have a particular message for us, to be found in the most stern directive of this morning gospel. “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. 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.” Clearly, Jesus is not ordering us to gouge out our eyes and chop off our hands when we mess up. I believe he is telling us that we need to recognize our role in the mess, and change that behaviour. Throughout the gospel, he shifts the focus away from “the other person” in our dispute, or failing, and places it back upon ourselves. What role did we play? What role are we still playing? If you are in conflict, Jesus says, don’t run to an arbitrator for a ruling, look first at yourself. Don’t try to change another person, look first at yourself. So often our disputes – in family, in marriage, in friendship, and even at work – begin with finding a scapegoat, someone else to blame. Let’s be honest, usually there is someone else – they just aren’t entirely to blame. To shift the focus back on ourselves is a version of removing that metaphorical hand, or eye.  It required digging deeply, and doing work that is often uncomfortable – but it is an essential part of healthy relationships to find our own place in the mess.

We learn the commandments when we are young, and we can see clearly how they have built society, made it possible for us to live in community with each other. But they are not, in and of themselves, relationship sustaining. A list of “shall nots” is not as powerful as what we choose as “will dos.”  The former assumes we need guidelines and directives, to maintain order and to keep community going for the big picture The latter is the way we choose to live in the everyday chaos with those closest to us. Jesus understood that our intimate relationships cannot live by law. They will only thrive on grace. Amen.

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