July 24, 2011
The Sermon On the Mount
Bringing Grace to Relationships
Their marriage, unsurprisingly, did not last.
Sermons come in different types – some are prophetic, bringing truth and challenges that need to be heard; some are more theological in nature, teaching and bringing illumination to a passage; and some are pastoral in nature, bringing a word of encouragement to people who need an encouraging word. Today’s message is one of a pastoral nature.
If you looked through the program this morning to the Scripture reading you will notice the interesting timing of this message. Last week Jim Collins brought us a message about marriage, and I’m grateful that he did. We have been going through the Sermon On the Mount and it turns out the week after a message about marriage we come to this passage where Jesus speaks about divorce. If you talk about marriage you are also faced with the reality of divorce. I haven’t performed as many weddings as Jim, but I’ve done quite a few. I don’t know how many of them are still together but I know a number of them have ended. One of the most heartbreaking things I do is to sit with couples as a marriage unravels, and that’s why I take a pastoral approach to this topic.
Some years ago, when I preached on one of the parallel passages about divorce, the Scripture reading was earlier in the service than the message. After reading it I sat down and realized it just dropped on people like a ton of bricks, as they wondered if I was going to use that passage to beat up on people who had been divorced. One person told me later their ex-spouse was constantly berating them with that same passage, using it as a weapon to wound and to hurt. Today’s passage is one that has been used to dump a truckload of guilt and hurt on people. People who have experienced the hurt and pain of divorce often find that instead of a word of grace and encouragement from churches, judgment and guilt is what is offered. After experiencing enough pain, bad theology adds more pain to them, which is very sad.
So, by way of introduction before reading the Scripture passage, let me affirm this is a pastoral message that is not out to condemn people who have been through the hurt of divorce. In fact, the focus of Jesus in this passage extends beyond divorce – it is about bringing grace to relationships in general.
So let’s read today’s Scripture passage –
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
This passage is about bringing grace to relationships. Throughout our study of the Sermon On the Mount we have discovered that relationships are a constant thread in what Jesus teaches. As he speaks about relationships, Jesus weaves throughout his words the necessity of bringing grace to relationships. The offer of grace was mind-blowing to his audience, because it wasn’t what they were used to. The religious leadership in the time of Jesus specialized in bringing judgment and condemnation to people, which is all that some people hear from churches today, unfortunately.
In one community where I lived, I officiated at a number of weddings for people who had been through a divorce. Most of the ministers in that community refused to officiate at the wedding of someone who was divorced, and most did so without even asking about the circumstance; their reaction was just a knee-jerk condemnation. It was painful to sit with those couples and listen not only to the hurt they had experienced because of the dissolution of a marriage, but the added hurt that came from churches.
Jesus begins this section by broaching the topic of lust, never a comfortable topic to discuss in public. So this morning we’re talking about lust and divorce – aren’t you glad you came to church today! Jesus is certainly dramatic in what he has to say. He says that if our right eye or right hand causes us to sin we ought to gauge out our eye or cut off our hand. Right here is where I like to challenge the Biblical literalists. Regardless of what anyone says, this verse proves no one is a Biblical literalist; they are at best, very selective in their literalism.
Jesus is using some hyperbole here, because what are you going to do, after removing your right eye, if your left eye causes you to sin? What are you going to do, if you cut off your right hand and your left hand causes you to sin? Do you take out the left eye and cut off the left hand? What if your ears become a problem? After removing your eyes, and hands, do you remove your ears? Where do you stop with that?
Which is, I think, exactly the point Jesus is making. You can pass a law against adultery but you can’t pass a law about what is in a person’s heart and mind. What you can do is seek to transform relationships, and the first relationship he seeks to transform is the relationship between men and women. Before Jesus speaks on the topic of marriage he speaks to the relationship of men and women in general, and the first word Jesus is bringing to that relationship is to speak against the objectification and mistreatment of women. He begins by asserting the dignity and equality of women. In the day of Jesus, as we have seen before, women were not equal. To call them second-class citizens would have been an improvement, because they were much lower on the scale than second-class.
The church, unfortunately, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to women. But it’s not just the church. We live in a world that, despite improvement, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to women. Our own society, which is more progressive than some when it comes to the treatment women, still has problems in this area. Women are still treated as objects, as advertising proves, where women are used as objects to sell products.
Jesus was saying something very radical for his time – treat women with respect and dignity. They are not objects to serve men. They do not exist for the pleasure of men. A wife is not the property of her husband.
Jesus affirms the dignity and equality of women and then moves on to the topic of divorce. Notice that as Jesus gives a single condition for divorce he is speaking to men. Jesus is not ruling out other reasons for divorce as much as he is correcting the pattern for divorce in his day. I don’t believe this is the final word of Jesus on what justifies divorce. I believe he spoke these words in a very specific context and it is a context that cannot be applied to every situation. We certainly cannot apply it to a situation where someone is suffering abuse and we cannot tell that person they must continue to endure that abuse.
To understand this point, first of all, when we think of adultery we think of something very different from how it was defined in the Biblical era. Adultery, as defined in the law, was not a married person having a relationship with a person other than their spouse. Adultery was an act committed by a man, with the wife of another Jewish man. It was not considered adultery if a married man had a relationship with another woman who was either unmarried, divorced, or the wife of a non-Jewish man. It was only considered adultery when a married man had a relationship with the wife of another Jewish man. Adultery was, in essence, a violation of another man’s property rights. His wife was his property and the violation was to trespass on the property of another, so to speak. It’s not a very high view of women, is it?
So Jesus is addressing men and raising their view of women and marriage. Divorce in the time of Jesus was a very simple act – if you were a man. To gain a divorce all a man had to do was to write out a writ of divorce and hand it to his wife. There didn’t have to be a good reason for the divorce. If his wife displeased him in any way a man could simply write out the writ of divorce and it was over. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband.
This is Jesus turning the tables on men, as they had all the power in a marriage. What was a divorced woman to do in that historical context? She had no legal recourse to sue for some type of settlement. She was sent out on her own with no means of support. What this did was force some women to turn to prostitution as a means of financial support. This is what had come of God’s design for two people coming together as one flesh – an institution that had been denigrated to the point that one person was treated as nothing more than a piece of property and then discarded on a whim and all with religious backing.
One of the things Jesus was saying was stop abusing people in the name of religion. Stop using religion as a mask for the mistreatment of the person you are supposed to love and to cherish.
Allow me to speak another word while on this topic, and that is to people who are unmarried. My home church had a Sunday School class that was named Pairs and Spares. Now there’s about the worse name in the history of names of Sunday School classes. Imagine being a spare. Come on and join us all you leftovers, all you 5th wheels, all you spares. That’s a terrible way to communicate to people who are unmarried.
We live in a very married culture, and it can be difficult if you are not married. You do not have to be married to be a whole person. In fact, in Paul’s opinion it was singleness that was the preference.
Your identity is not defined by whether or not you have a relationship with another person. To be single is not to be any less of a person.
Marriage is a beautiful gift, but not all marriages last, and people who have experienced the pain of divorce have endured more pain because bad theology has placed guilt and condemnation upon them. Allow God to lift that guilt and pain from your life.
May we pray.