There are certain passages of scripture that tend to get ignored or even avoided. The three-year pattern of readings that form the Lectionary leaves out great chunks of the bible that never get read in church or preached on by those ministers who follow the Lectionary. I remember Tony Thompson, when we were co-worshiping with Wesley, taking on the challenge of doing a sermon series on some of the biblical passages that the lectionary bypasses. Quite a courageous undertaking on Tony’s part.
There are a variety of reasons why some passages get overlooked. Some are pretty mundane and have little significance in themselves other than to connect more important passages together. Some come from more primitive times and so may have had meaning for the people at the time they were written but – at least in someone’s judgement – have little relevance anymore. In some cases, passages are quite offensive and might stir up unnecessary controversy that could sidetrack us into missing the destination intended by the main road. Part of it, of course, is just efficiency. Something has to be left out in a 3-year cycle; it would take an awful lot longer than 156 Sundays to read every single word in the Bible.
I need to confess that I was tempted to bypass the Gospel reading today because, although it is in the lectionary, it makes me personally uncomfortable. All that stuff about adultery and divorce is a bit of a minefield in today’s world. Some of that touches home for me, as a divorced person; and my pastoral sensitivity to others who have struggled in relationships gets triggered as well. It also, to my ear, puts Jesus in a different light than I usually like to see him. He is much less the gentle, understanding, compassionate Jesus here, and more like the demanding, judgemental Pharisees he is usually so impatient with. This time, though, after looking for something else – anything else – to read and talk about this morning, I decided to face the music and see what kind of a song it played. So here goes.
First of all, let me put the whole passage into context. The passage we are looking at today is an excerpt from Jesus’ longer discourse we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount. He starts in a very gentle and inviting way, with the Beatitudes especially, but then his tone turns a little heavier – a little sharper. “Don’t think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus begins this section; “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” he says quite plainly. Then, in the rest of the passage we read this morning, he makes a series of comparisons following up on that overriding statement: “You have heard it said,” he repeats in each part of today’s reading about, in turn, murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths; then goes on to say, “But I say unto you….” In other words, he makes reference to various parts of the Ten Commandments and other Jewish traditions and, rather than watering them down, he ramps them up and takes them even further. No compromise here; no loopholes; no soft, gentle, understanding, easy-going Jesus here at all.
I think there are a couple of reasons why Jesus might have taken this tone in this long sermon. One of those reasons is more strategic and one more substantial.
The more strategic reason, I think, is because there is mounting controversy and criticism around his teachings. He is beginning to get a reputation and part of that reputation is that he is a rebel. And being a rebel can get you into hot water with the mainstream authorities. I don`t think Jesus was afraid of controversy but I am sure he didn`t want to add unnecessary fuel to the fire, especially if people were misreading what he was saying. So he seems to be at pains here to make it clear that he is very respectful of Jewish scripture and tradition; and, if he deviates at all, it is to go even deeper and, like the prophets before him, to see God`s original intention in the Commandments. And the “deeper” he goes is to remind people that following the traditions is not just about conforming to correct outward behaviour; it is to cleanse one`s inner motivation so that outward behaviour flows naturally from within. So, for example, even to be angry with someone is to have murdered them in your imagination; even to lust after someone is to have committed adultery in your heart. A higher standard. The highest of all.
And that brings us to what I think is the second, more substantial reason Jesus is so uncompromising here. In keeping with God present and speaking through Jesus, how could there be any compromise? The last thing I would expect Jesus to do would be to water down the righteous vision of God. I say again and again that Jesus didn’t come to teach us to be religious but to live – and to live well and abundantly. And so Jesus would put forth the ideal here. Relationships that work; that are whole and healthy and life-giving; where anger and lust and manipulation and double-mindedness and crafty-speaking don’t creep in to contaminate relationships and communities. Through Jesus, God longs for people to be free of all the pain that comes from compromised living and, instead, to aspire to the highest standard of righteousness. Not just to be obedient rule-keepers but to live well and joyously and freely, and to do it all naturally, from the heart.
In many ways, Jesus’ teaching here echoes the teaching of Moses as we read from Deuteronomy. “Choose life!” Moses exhorts the people on the verge of crossing the Jordan River and finally entering the Promised Land. And for Moses, choosing life meant to obey the commandments. And the reason for obeying the commandments was not so God would be pleased with all the good little boys and girls in Israel; but because the natural consequences of deviating from the commandments would lead to so much pain and destruction. God puts the commandments before us not as hoops to jump through in order to get a reward, but because they are a love-given guide to happy, healthy, successful living.
So, as demanding and challenging as this teaching is, I guess I would be disappointed if Jesus taught anything less than the highest possible standards of righteousness in regard to outward behaviour arising from inner motivation. In fact, being the rebel Jesus truly was, it was adding that bit about inner motivation to rules about external behaviour that was the key to his claim to be fulfilling not abolishing the old Jewish traditions.
I have to go outside of the scripture reading this morning to add a couple of important riders. For the highest standards of righteousness need to be matched with the highest standards of compassion and honesty as well.
That Jesus set the bar of compassion high is pretty evident not only from particular scriptures but also from the witness of his whole life. Yes, he never compromised his God-centred vision of righteousness; but he dealt with each person and each situation he encountered with matching compassion as well. Jesus was fully human and understood exactly what it was like to struggle with temptation, to deal with prickly people, to feel his own shadow side trying to show itself once in a while. So, when he came across someone society considered a sinner, he characteristically responded not with judgement but with compassion. The woman caught in adultery, faced with stoning by the supposedly upright men of the town, is a pretty well-known example of that. Jesus compromised neither the righteous standards of God nor the compassionate heart of God. He held and practiced only the highest standards in both regards.
And that’s where we need to add the highest possible standards of personal honesty as well. For we might think that the compassion of Jesus lets us off the hook. That, yes, we know what the righteous expectations are but we also know that God in Christ has a soft heart and will not hold our transgressions against us. I think this is more a matter of psychology than theology. God may offer blanket forgiveness; but unless we forgive ourselves, we will never fully experience the freedom we have because of God’s compassion. And that felt-experience of forgiveness comes, I think, from setting for ourselves the highest standards of personal honesty: no-excuse honesty with ourselves about what we have done to hurt ourselves or another or to fray the fabric of community that holds us together; no-excuse honesty with God in confession of what we have done to hurt ourselves or another or to fray the fabric of community that holds us together.
I think the Catholics have it over us in this regard, so far as confession is concerned. For confession can be more of a theory than real until we have spoken aloud to another trusted person what we have done with no sugar-coating. And lest you think that the practice of the confessional in Catholic circles is just another empty ritual, know this: that any priest worth his salt will tell you that a token confession that is not accompanied by rigorous honesty, practical repentance, and heart-felt remorse is just empty words.
And we can learn something from the traditional practice of healing circles in First Nations communities: bringing the offender and the offended together, not for blame and punishment, but for an honest sharing of what the whole experience has been like from both sides so that the breach in the relationship and in the fabric of the whole community can be mended.
One of the regrets I have in the breakdown of my first marriage is that my former wife and I have never been able to sit down with one another and honestly – without accusation or self-justification – simply acknowledge the hurt we caused each other over the years. I cannot force that to happen – I am not sure I am even capable of it – but I know that, if we were able to do that, we might find peace in the memory of our struggles that is more than what just comes with the fading away of time.
As Christians, we are called to set only the highest standards in our respect for the holiness of God that we sing about each Sunday as we begin our Service. As evident in the teachings of Jesus, the standards of God’s righteousness are high, and without compromise. As evident in the life of Jesus, the standards of God’s compassion are high, but they are not a blank check. As evident in our human experience, unless the standards of our own personal honesty are also high, our righteousness is compromised, and the full joy of living freely in compassionate forgiveness is at least partly withheld from us.
When I take the risk of looking today’s Gospel reading in the face, I hear it asking of us three things: respect for the righteousness of God; gratitude for the compassion of Christ; and humble honesty before God about our own personal struggles and failings.
So be it.
The Rev. Ted Hicks