First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 6

William Loader

Epiphany 6: 16 February Matthew 5:21-37

Matthew has just presented Jesus as one who upholds the Law and the Prophets. That includes fulfilling what they predicted but also making sure what they intend is taken seriously. This would have met the criticism of fellow Jews who might have been suggesting that Jesus (and his followers) set the Law aside. It would have also countered those Christians (and their teachers) who seemed to do just that. According to Matthew, Jesus did not come to present a new set of commandments to replace the old, but to teach what the eternal commandments always meant. God requires righteousness (right living) and it has to be better than what he alleges many Jewish leaders of his time achieved (5:20).

Our passage takes in the first four of six contrasts which Matthew presents in order to show what doing God's Law really means and where its priorities lie. People can hear the commandments and not understand what they are really about. That is why Matthew introduces these six contrasts by saying:: "you have heard that it was said to the people of old". It is like saying: you know what they said the commandments meant? Well, let me tell you what they really mean! He has selected only six on which to comment. Matthew is fond of multiples of three. Each one has an introduction, the first and the fourth being the longest. The selection is important because it tells us where the emphasis lies.

The first topic is hate or harboured anger. Jesus is saying: the important thing is not just not to murder, but not to hate. Hate leads to violence. It is no more a condemnation of the feeling of anger, which often comes with hurt and pain, than the next contrast is condemning sexual feelings. Gospel writers had no hesitation in speaking of Jesus becoming angry. It is what you do with your anger that counts. Anger turned to hate abuses people, often starting with words of abuse. Jesus lists some of them from his time. You could read what he says as though it is legislation with particular punishment for particular words, but this fails to see that this is rhetoric after the fashion of wisdom sayings. Jesus is saying: if you take the command, "Do not kill", seriously, then you will not embrace hate and let you anger turn to abuse of others. You will write no one off. The fifth contrast will speak of retaliation - also a form of hate. The sixth contrast matches the first because it has the same theme: love your enemies. In Jesus' teaching the foundation is God's love and openness to all.

When we believe God's goodness and generosity towards us, then we will not write ourselves off and we will not write others off. This runs counter to some very strong values embedded in human society, perhaps laid down for males through our evolution in times when survival required fight. These days we entertain ourselves and our children so often with fantasies about how to kill people, whether literally or in hatefulness. There is a certain attraction in being able to divide people into those we love and those we hate - and those we don't know so don't care about anyway. It seeds racism. It rescues us from complexity and the messiness of needing to think, and to engage the unfamiliar and less amenable to us and our ways. The religious form of this is to deem some people as never having been chosen, never having been of worth, not counting. Religions use it to rationalise rejection. It is, alas, alive and well. It is easier to eliminate people in this way than to take up the challenge of respecting them, engaging them, seeking a right relationship with them - God's way according to the gospel, though "God" is often made to model, motivate and rationalise our fondness for hate.

There are two more teachings about anger; the first having almost a touch of humour to it: Someone has something against you? Then go back home (to Galilee?!) and sort it out - even if it means a few days' journey (5:23-24)! Similarly, Matthew has what sounds like advice at conflicts which might end up in court and land you in jail (5:25-26). It is really a powerful way of urging people to deal with conflict directly and immediately. Later Matthew's Jesus instructs people to put effort into sorting out problems of wrongdoing in the community (18:15-18) and approaching them with compassion and prayer (18:12-14, 19-20, 21-35). We still need that wisdom: don't go gossiping! Don't just sit on it (it might explode destructively one day or you might implode with stress). Deal with it. When Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (5:9), it is clear from Matthew's gospel, that he did not mean, blessed are those who sweep things under the carpet, or those who lie to themselves and others about pain. If it hurts, say so. Deal with it! Help others deal with pain and conflict. Be a life-bearer, not a death-bearer - for others' sake and also your own - not to speak of, for the sake of the church, the community, and also the marriage and family. Matthew seems to have had an astute understanding of what it meant to be church: it includes dealing with anger and conflict.  .

Feelings matter. They are natural responses, like hunger and thirst. What you do with them is important. The second contrast has been misunderstood as though it is saying: any man who looks at a woman and has a sexual response to her, finding her sexually attractive, has committed adultery with her in his heart/mind. That is not what the text says. It uses the word for "woman" but then speaks of adultery, which takes place only in relation to a married woman. So it is about responses to married women. Most women were married, so it was a comment with wide application. The Greek of Matthew does not mean:: looking with a result that one has sexual feelings, but looking with a view to lusting after her, wanting to commit adultery with her. The issue is not having sexual feelings, but what one does with them. As with anger, if you have them and harbour them towards a married woman, then you are in effect an adulterer in your mind. Get your mind sorted out.

Matthew's Jesus is addressing men, but it is equally applicable to women. What Matthew's Jesus says to men about their sexuality has great importance for both men and women. If we misunderstand the text as saying that finding women sexually attractive is sin, as many came to do, then women would be a constant problem for men. They should be controlled, covered up. Otherwise they will be to blame for men sinning. Some thought that holy men should avoid them altogether. It is clear that this was not Jesus' response. His advice here makes men responsible for what they do with their sexuality, not women. This is why he was apparently quite comfortable having both men and women together as his disciples and why some women even assumed positions of leadership. When a woman wanted to anoint his feet (or head), some around Jesus saw this as dangerous and thought Jesus should send her away. He did no such thing. He saw her neither as a threat nor as someone to be exploited. Taking responsibility for one's sexuality was so important for Matthew's Jesus, that he used shock tactics to press home the point, advising that people sever their right hand or pluck out their right eye ("right" was traditionally seen as the more valuable). People would have understood the rhetoric. Jesus was not commending physical mutilation, but challenging people to be serious about how they managed their sexual responses.

With regard to the third contrast, there was no command about divorce, but it is implied in the instructions of Deut 24:1-4, which prohibited remarrying someone you had divorced. Divorce became a problem especially when Judaism began to move away from polygyny (having more than one wife), where, if you could afford it, you dealt with your problems with your wife by adding another, and another, and another, and may have even fallen back in love with the first over time. Polygyny is a pattern of marriage we see assumed in the stories of Abraham and Jacob, for instance. If you embraced the principle of monogyny, adding another wife was not an option. So divorce became the more common option and could be for trifling reasons. Understandably there was reaction to this and Jesus' prohibition of divorce belongs to such reaction within Judaism. In 19:3-9, where Matthew takes up Mark 10:2-12, we hear something of a rationale: Genesis taught that people were made male and female and when they joined they became one flesh and that was to be permanent. It was not to be tinkered with for trifling reasons but taken seriously. Other versions of Jesus' saying make the prohibition absolute, mentioning no exceptions. Matthew is different, though in all likelihood he is simply spelling out what the others also assumed, namely that just as sexual intercourse made people permanently one so it permanently severed any previous relationship. So: no divorce; but where adultery has taken place, which was believed to have severed the marriage relationship, there not only can but must be divorce. The view that adultery was intolerable was widely held across Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture, requiring the death of both people at some points in history or, if not, certainly divorce.

Across two millennia these words sound harsh, but we need to acknowledge them and their context, which was one where divorces were normally unilateral acts and usually by men. Both our modern circumstances and our biblical heritage have taught us that adultery need not terminate a marriage, for we have learned from the gospel about reconciliation, forgiveness, and new beginnings. With effective contraception adultery these days is much less likely to result in pregnancy, one of the great fears about adultery in the ancient world. Similarly, because Jesus consistently shifted the focus from just act to attitude of mind we are able to embrace what also the wisdom about human relations has taught us, namely that usually adultery is usually a symptom of something else as well, so that things may have gone badly wrong, even irretrievably so, long before an act of adultery has taken place, indeed even when it has not taken place. Reconciliation and healing mean dealing with these complexities of the mind and attitude towards which the gospel also points us. Our gospel commitment to marriage and relationship remains, but works itself out in ways that may sometimes see (agreed) divorce as the most creative way forward and may also have us recognising that marriages where adultery has taken place can be retrieved, revived, even to become stronger and more fruitful for having worked through the underlying issues. In this sense a wooden application of the prohibition unchanged, without taking the depth of the gospel and width of human wisdom into account, may seem like faithfulness to scripture but in effect proves to be the opposite.

The prohibition of oaths, if taken literally, lands us in a similar mess of literalism. Paul regularly uses oath formulations, swearing by God, that this or that is so. The issue is partly the objectionable attempt to employ God's name in a manipulative way to further one's own ends and partly the failure in honest straightforward communication which is entails. Open, straightforward communication with integrity belongs to what it means to respect other human beings. Sometimes we may need references, witnesses, guarantors, as an aid to those who might otherwise be unsure or where some communally agreed norms are at stake, such as oaths of office or in court, but basically the gospel is about not playing games with people by manipulation. That is a form of abuse.

There is much in this passage, but it comes up for preaching very seldom - only when Easter is very late as in this year. It addresses issues that are always with us and deserve to be canvassed regularly.

See also the Gospel of Conflict

Epistle: Epiphany 6:  16 February  1 Corinthians 3:1-9

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