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Sunday, February 16, 2014

How rules actually make us free

To hear my podcast sermon for this week, click here.

Today's Gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) is extraordinarily dense, and no less controversial.  Jesus seems to be telling us that if we even get angry at someone or lust after someone, we have committed murder or adultery, respectively.

I propose that if we understand the placement of this passage in the wider Gospel and if we understand the climate in which Jesus spoke these words, they actually cease to be controversial.

Jesus makes these statements immediately after his Salt and Light discourse, dealt with in last week's sermon.  In that passage, he makes a most momentous statement: "I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it".  At one point, Jesus is asked what the most important Commandments is.  He does not name any of the Commandments.  Instead, He issues what has become known as "The Great Commandment": love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus was an outspoken critic of the Pharisees, whom he felt had reduced Jewish Law to a mockery of what it was meant to accomplish, to wit, to show love to God and neighbour.  Jesus actually names the very foundation of the Law, rather than the Law itself.

In his discourse about murder, many theologians feel that he is making a comment about the Jewish sacrificial system, which was meant to make things right with God, but was never meant to be a substitute for making things right with our neighbour.  But this is just what it had become.  Rather than humbling oneself and rectifying things with our neighbour, many people were content to offer a sacrifice and walk away feeling like things had been made right.

Jesus calls us to a greater spiritual purity.  For him, it was not enough that you had not killed your neighbour.  If you even hated your neighbour, you were in transgression of the spirit of the Law, that being love for your neighbour.  Jesus is calling us to relieve ourselves of the anger that we feel by trying to make things right.

Jesus' discourse on adultery and divorce are certainly controversial, but once again, we need to understand the context.  Although we can certainly learn a lesson from this passage, Jesus was not in fact talking to us specifically.  He was speaking to the Jewish people, responding to a threat that he saw to the sacred Jewish concept of marriage.

At the time, Judaism was surrounded by competing philosophical and religious systems, namely Greco-Roman.  Greco-Roman views on marriage were far more liberal that those of Jesus' Judaism.  The Greco-Roman view of marriage was that it was more of a business transaction: you married to have legitimate children and to have someone to run your household, but extramarital affairs were not only permissible, they were in fact condoned and indeed encouraged.

This did not hold with the concept of Jewish monogamy (yes, at one point Judaism was polygamous, but even then, you were expected to be faithful) and the sanctity of marriage.  But these competing views appealed to a number of Jewish men who were more than happy to "trade up" to a newer model when the honeymoon was over.

It is into this situation that Jesus speaks his warning against giving ourselves over to lust and to the ease with which divorces could be performed in his time (it bears noting that women could not divorce their husbands with nearly as much ease, but that is perhaps for another sermon)

Jesus then moves on to vows.  To this day, we often hear people say, "I swear to God", "I swear on my children", "I swear on my mother's grave", and so on and so forth.  We often use this to add weight and credibility to our promises.  But chances are, if you have to add an oath to your promise, you know and I know there is a fair chance you will not come through.  If this was not the case, why could your personal integrity not speak for itself?  If you actually were a trustworthy person, why would an additional vow be needed?

In all these examples, Jesus is actually calling is to a higher level of personal integrity, and (and here is the key thing):

Jesus is calling us to a greater degree of freedom.

He is not trying to ruin our fun.  Imagine for a moment being totally free of anger, grudges with people.  Imagine being happy with what you have: wife, husband, children, job, possessions.  Imagine being free of lusting after more.  Imagine living with so much integrity and honesty that oaths were not necessary.

That would be pretty freeing, indeed.

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