What a difficult gospel passage to read today! (Matthew 5:21-37)
It is a small part of the teaching of Jesus commonly known as the sermon on the mount. It is another of those passages where the standard being taught is humanly impossible to achieve.
In the text the audience are being told that the old testament commands are superseded. There is a new standard. This is an impossibly high standard where anyone who feels anger or lust is judged to be guilty.
With passages like these, my concern is always that they will cause guilt. Reactions like “I can’t do it” or “I’m not good enough” or even “I need to punish myself”. I don’t think those kinds of guilt responses are helpful. Often they just leave the reader in despair and unable to do anything.
So, the best thing I can do with the passage is follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake it until it yields a blessing.
I’m going to look, not at the story nor at the details of the standards, but at the punchline in each section. I hope, in doing that, I will find the heart of the story. Ao positive that will have some relevance for me today.
But before I do that I can’t resist commenting on the section about divorce. In contemporary times the Bible is used a lot to try and cause harm; to women, to those of other religions, to gay and transgender friends. Here is a perfect example of how this sort of selective reading is unhelpful, or should I say, simply wrong. In this passage, it states quite clearly that divorce is unacceptable. It is very plain, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (32)
At this point I could say a lot about the inherent sexism in the passage. It is clearly only written addressing men and how their property, women, are to be dealt with. However, I’ll leave that for another time and continue to ponder the instruction on divorce.
In contemporary times, we do not, as a society, abide by this biblical statement. Clearly we do not accept it (after all many Bible-believing Christians voted for a twice-divorced president). The history of divorce is long and complex. However, in the UK it was only in 1969 that there was a big change in the law allowing people to divorce more easily. It happened at the same time in USA with California leading the way with “no-fault” divorces.
I know lots of divorced people and have some divorced friends. The divorce may have caused unrest and sadness or, in some cases, relief, but no-one ever talks about being a “sinner” or going against biblical teaching and rightly so. In the case of divorce the Bible is no longer used to cause harm. I am glad it is so.
I can’t imagine society any other way and it is only 48 years since the inception of those laws making divorce more available and acceptable.
I hope that in fifty years as a society we will look back in the same way on the issues today and wonder what all the fuss was about.
I make this point only to show that it is unhelpful to use the Bible in a way designed to cause harm. Times change and our understanding of society broadens. It is important to focus not on odd phrases or on little details but to look for the core; the thread of love and justice running through the scriptures.
So, for me the core in these verses are the two positive statements:
Be reconciled with each other (24)
Let you word be truthful (37)
These are words I can live by. They are commands that will keep harmony and trust amongst people. I don’t think that they are easy commands, I don’t know that they can ever be fully achieved but they are worth aspiring to. These are practices to build into my daily living as I try to live the best life I can.
(Photo: Broadkill Beach, November 2017)