The gospel we have before us today is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which my commentary* calls “The Messiah’s Inaugural Address”. It presents Jesus as Israel’s ultimate, God-authorised teacher and sternly warns the readers that believing in Jesus means doing what he says. Matthew’s gospel finishes with the Great Commandment, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Disciples means ‘students’ or ‘learners’ and in this sentence the word ‘obey’ means ‘let your lives be shaped by’ everything I have commanded you.
So, let us consider this part of Jesus’ teaching and see what we may learn and how our lives may be shaped. There are four sections. They deal with murder, adultery, divorce and lies. There are two more sections which we’ve not read today, dealing with non-violent resistance and love for enemies.
These six sections have the same shape. Jesus says, “You have heard it said that, but I say this.” He takes six pieces of the Law of Moses and shows how those six sections of the Law are to be fulfilled. Remember we read last week that Jesus told the people that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it.
We begin with the one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall do no murder”. Some people say, “Aha, no murder. That means we can support the death penalty, or we can go to war, because that’s not murder, it’s lawful killing.”
Jesus takes the opposite view. The spirit of the commandment is respect for others. If you are angry with someone, if you insult them, if you call them a fool, these are not respectful or kind or merciful. A man came to see me on Friday asking for $350 to pay his removal expenses. I lost my temper and shouted at him – Sue heard me from the Rectory. I should not have done that. I apologised, but Jesus says that such behaviour makes us liable to judgement. The lesson that disciples learn is to practise kindness and respect, kindness and mercy.
Jesus adds that respect is a two way street. He says that if your brother or sister has something against you, drop everything and go and make every effort to be reconciled. And reconciliation is the coming together of two people with mutual respect and forgiveness.
The next section is also from the Ten Commandments. You shall not commit adultery. You will notice that Jesus is talking to men only. Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. This is important to note because adultery, as it was understood when the book of Exodus was written, refers to a special kind of theft; the adulterer was guilty of depriving a married man of his exclusive rights concerning his wife. She became “damaged goods.” In those days, a wife was one of her husband’s possessions. In the Tenth Commandment, against covetousness, the wife is listed among the slaves, oxen, asses and anything else that a man owns.
Now Jesus moves the goal posts. Women are no longer to be regarded as mere possessions to be coveted or lusted after. There is nothing wrong with looking at a man or a woman and finding them sexually attractive. What is wrong is the desire to steal them from their partner or to want to control or exploit them. In Jesus’ teaching and in the early church women and men were ‘subject to one another’ as brothers and sisters in Christ, in whom there is neither male nor female, slave nor free.
As for tearing out your eye or cutting off your hand, this is not an instruction or a demand for punishment, Jesus is simply emphasising the importance of treating all people with respect and honour, loving-kindness and mercy.
Now we come to the question of divorce. This has been the subject of many a sermon, good and bad. Matthew treats it very seriously and records Jesus’ teaching more fully in chapter 19, verses 3 to 12. I will try and be brief, clear and honest.
Firstly we remember that wives used to belong to their husbands, which is why the Law is addressed to men only. The Law as quoted by Jesus affirms the rights of women. Divorce, as it was in those days, meant that a woman no longer had any legal place in the man’s household and removes her right to be supported by the man. A certificate of divorce meant that the woman was free to marry again and that the man marrying her was not stealing her from another man. The Law, as it stood, was good, and Jesus was not abolishing it, but fulfilling it.
Jesus objects to the idea of divorce being used to expel a woman from her place in a household. She may have a certificate of divorce, but that only makes any future marriages legal, it doesn’t guarantee her a place in any household.
Jesus also objects to the idea of divorce being used to transfer a faithful woman from one household to another. It is wrong to use the law of divorce in this way. An innocent woman would be treated as a possession. The man who divorces her sins against her by causing her to commit adultery because she is expelled from her rightful place, and the man who takes possession also commits adultery because he has stolen her from her rightful place.
Remember always that Jesus was teaching the people of the world as it was 2000 years ago. He was not laying down a new Biblical Law to stand for all time. In fulfilling the Law of Moses he was establishing the principles lying behind the Law, principles of justice, mercy, humility, kindness, gentleness and self-control. I thank God that in Australia at least; our laws of divorce are based on those principles. The marriage relationship is not one of possession and a man’s rights over the woman who belongs to him. Marriage in Australia in the twenty-first century is ideally based on the relationship between two equal partners, inspired by mutual love and respect, subject to one another out of reverence for Christ and for the building up and strengthening of both partners.
When two people marry, they make promises to each other; promises of mutual love and respect. They make promises in the presence of God and they ask for Godly and human help to keep their promises. Jesus’ command to those who make promises is that they should be sincere, honest and straightforward, Yes or No, anything else, he says, comes from the evil one.
God knows that our promises can fail and that there are many cases where a marriage is no longer real and that the best thing to be done is to recognise our failure, to set aside the marriage vows, to ask for forgiveness, to seek reconciliation and to pray to God our great redeemer that we may be strengthened by our experiences.
* My commentary. For some material used in this sermon I am indebted to Douglas R. A. Hare, author of "Matthew" in the Interpretation series published by John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA, 1993