Sunday 16 February 2014
Today we continued our reading of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel.
We heard read today individual grabs of teaching which are called antitheses. There are six of them here at the end of chapter 5 of the gospel. We heard four of them.
They are called antitheses because they all follow a similar pattern:
“You have heard that it was said …
But, I say …”
It seems that Jesus is putting his teaching up against the teaching of Moses. But that can hardly be the case because we read just a few verses before the antitheses Jesus saying: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” So it is in that context that we need to read the antitheses. They are meant to be the fulfillment of the law, not its abrogation.
The four antitheses we heard read in today’s liturgy concerned: anger, lust, divorce and oaths.
Now there’s a juicy collection for us to get our teeth into. Let’s look at them one by one.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.” The sharp ones among us know this as one of the ten commandments. But Jesus says, you have already transgressed if you are angry or insult or call a brother or sister a fool.
In other words, Jesus delves into the deeper realms of the commandment. He doesn’t overthrow it but points out that, for his disciples, there are deeper implications.
He then uses hyperbole, or exaggeration, which he uses frequently during the Sermon on the Mount. To expect someone to leave their offering in front of the altar in the Temple to run off to find a person with whom division exists is completely impractical.
There would be little chance of finding the offering still there in the crowded Temple where it was left upon return.
The point is that we do not only have an ethical problem when we are at the point of murder with someone. Right relations with our brothers and sisters are critical to our Christian life.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, we might recognize the original teaching here as one of the ten commandments. And once again, Jesus is not overthrowing the commandment, but intensifying it if you like.
We need a bit of cultural context here. It is crucial to remember that the wife was regarded as a possession of the man. So a man who had sexual relations with a married woman was not offending against the woman, but rather against the woman’s husband by whom she was “owned’. The offence was akin to stealing in that cultural world.
Jesus changes the dynamic by his higher standard. ‘…everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It is the woman who is wronged in Jesus’ view.
Again Jesus uses hyperbole. About tearing out eyes and cutting off limbs to emphasise how important his teaching is. Remember that he was speaking to his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount and we know from reading the gospels that they were a mixed group of men and women. Perhaps Jesus was reinforcing the need for self-discipline in such a nomadic mixed group which would have appeared to be so scandalous in those days to those who observed them moving about.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” We should note that there is no commandment about divorce, but it was regulated.
What is behind this regulation is the fact that, in the Mediterranean culture, a woman who was put aside through divorce by her husband was destined to a life of destitution. Her only recourse was to remarry, or prostitution. Once again, we see that Jesus has some intent about protecting the woman in the situation.
We should also note that this all rests upon a notion of the woman being the property of the man. This gives us reason to be cautious about how we think this might apply to the question of marriage and divorce in our own time when, by and large, we regard marriage as a partnership of equals entered into freely without all of the baggage of the patriarchal system of the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.”
The intent of Jesus’ teaching here seems to be really quite simple. He seems to be saying, don’t use oaths to give your utterances more solemnity as to their truthfulness. Your ordinary word should be good enough. Be honest in your dealings. If you mean “yes”, then say “yes”. There is no need to dramatise matters and make out that it is really a big deal that you are making a truthful statement. People should know that they can accept your word for what it is. No need to swear an oath to accentuate it.
The antitheses actually provide us with very good practical exercises in how to read the gospels. First of all, they caution us against reading them in a strictly literal sense. I think it is safe to assert that every man has had lustful thoughts of women at some stage during their lifetime, but we don’t expect that they would have torn their eyes out. Jesus does use exaggeration at times as a teaching tool.
We also learn that the gospels will invite us to go beyond the merely legalistic. Some people put a lot of store in the Ten Commandments as the basis of moral living. This gospel reading shows us that they don’t go anywhere near far enough.
In essence, the commandments tell us what not to do; the gospels invite us into new areas of positive living for the kingdom of God. Remember Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer who asked what he needed to do to attain eternal life, even after he had kept all of the commandments.
In a particularly graphic way, the antitheses teach us to take account of the cultural environment in which Jesus lived. Jesus is not a twenty-first century western male. He was a Jewish man who lived in the Mediterranean world of the first century and the language he used and the cultural issues he addresses reflect that background.
Having said all that, the way to learn to read the gospels fruitfully is to read the gospels – frequently. As I have said many times, if you started with the gospel of Matthew and then, Mark, Luke and John in order and religiously read one chapter per day, you would read the four gospels right through four times in a year. The more you read them, the more you become attuned to the language and the environment of the gospel world. Familiarity with the gospels leads us to bring our questions to them and as we follow those questions through, our ability to create meaning for our own lives grows.
Read the gospels daily.
The word of God, though written long ago, still speaks to us today.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen