Saturday, February 15, 2014
You Have Heard, But I Say
RCL Epiphany 6A
16 February 2014
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Focus Text: Matthew 5.21-37
In the fall of 2003 a new word entered the vocabulary of the Porter-Leggett household: rugby. Owen, our youngest and most athletic, had been invited by his friends from McKechnie Elementary School to try out for the Grade 8 rugby team at Magee High School. By the end of the first month of school, our family life had a new dimension and I, in particular, became a ‘rugby dad’.
Now some of you know that I grew up in the United States in a time when rugby was virtually unknown as a team sport. There were a few schools, usually posh private schools, where rugby was played, but the average American had little to no knowledge of the game that gave rise to the game you and I know as American or Canadian football. For example, how many of you know that the Grey Cup was originally intended as a rugby trophy?
As a consequence of Owen’s involvement in this sport, a year-round involvement, I kept my car equipped with Wellingtons, blankets, rain-gear and umbrellas. At Christmas of 2003 Owen gave me a present: ‘The Dummy’s Guide to Rugby’. I was quickly becoming a convert to rugby and I dove into the book with all the passion of a new Christian exploring the scriptures.
I won’t bore you with too many details, but I will share one distinctive aspect of rugby with you: Rugby does not have any rules, but it does have laws. The difference between rules and laws is quite simple: Rules must be obeyed, but laws are interpreted. Rules are precise, but laws are occasionally ambiguous. Because rugby has laws not rules, the referee plays a very significant role in any rugby game. Rugby players even have a saying: ‘Play to the ref.’
For example, when a rugby player is carrying the ball and is tackled, he or she must release the ball. If not, he or she may be guilty of ‘holding on’. Some referees interpret this law very strictly, while others are slower to blow the whistle. Players have no idea what to expect until the game has started and the referee betrays her or his interpretation of the law. In fact, one of the worst things one can say about a rugby referee is that he or she was ‘inconsistent’.
What is true about rugby is also true about the scriptures. There are people who believe that the scriptures are a rule book with clear and indisputable rules for human behaviour. In fact, some years ago there was a popular bumper sticker in the United States: ‘The Bible: God said it. I believe it.’
But some of you have heard me say, and I will repeat it today, that there is often a significant difference between what the scriptures say and what the scriptures mean. On this Sunday, in particular, the gospel according to Matthew records Jesus as saying some very strong words that may make some of us uncomfortable and uncertain.
Let me be clear: there are many times when the scriptures should make us feel uncomfortable and uncertain. But it is crucial that we discern whether our discomfort and uncertainty is the intention of the Spirit speaking through the biblical writers or the result of our lack of understanding of the context in which these words were first spoken or written.
In today’s gospel we are witnesses to a debate that was raging among the Jews of Jesus’ time and, dare I say, the earliest followers of Jesus. For both Jews and early Christians, the word ‘scriptures’ meant what you and I know as the ‘Old’ Testament or the Hebrew scriptures: the Law, the Prophets and the Historical Writings. The Law or ‘Torah’ was found in the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books contained the heart and soul of the Jewish law. It was vital for faithful Jews and faithful followers of Jesus to understand what the Torah, the core tradition, meant. The words of these five books were not rules; they were laws. As such, they needed interpretation and different teachers and schools, ‘referees’ if you like, interpreted the laws with greater or lesser strictness, with wider or narrower application.
In today’s gospel Jesus dives into this maelstrom of contemporary Jewish theological debate. He reveals himself to be a teacher who applies the law with a broader application than many of his contemporaries who sought a narrower way. When Jesus interprets the law in this broader way, he actually challenges his disciples to follow a more difficult path.
1) “You shall not murder.” --- Jesus expands this law to include ‘the destruction of people with violent and . . . abusive anger and dismissing them to hell.’ (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1755) Jesus understands that the roots of murder lie in our ability to reduce other human beings to objects rather than bearers of our shared divine image. ‘Yes,’ Jesus says, ‘do not kill another person in any way --- physically, spiritually, materially, emotionally.’ When faced with this interpretation, Christians are faced with a call to a transformation of heart, mind and soul that some of us find difficult indeed.
2) “You shall not commit adultery.” --- We live in a society where sexuality fills our media. In many and various ways, children and adolescents are led to believe that sexual relations are recreational rather than expressions of commitment and genuine intimacy. Women throughout the world are subjected to sexual violence and harassment. In a world such as this, Jesus expands the meaning of the word ‘adultery’ to condemn behaviours, especially of men, that treat women as objects and that maintain inequality between the genders.
3) “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” --- In these verses Jesus touches the hearts and minds of many of us in this parish today and in our church at large. It was only after a lengthy debate and considerable controversy that the Anglican Church of Canada in the late 1960’s permitted the remarriage of divorced persons. Some opponents quoted this passage from Matthew to object to the change in the marriage canon. Yet, in this context, Jesus is speaking to a society in which women had no rights to divorce their husbands. Even if a husband committed adultery, the wife had no rights to end the marriage. If a wife left her husband, the children, as the husband’s property, remained with him. Once again, Jesus interprets the law by restricting the power and privilege of men at the expense of women. Any one who has been through a divorce does not consider it painless or trivial, but we cannot use this text to prevent the ending of a marriage that does not contribute to the full life of both partners.
4) “Do not swear at all.” --- There are Christians living today who quote this passage to explain why they will not swear an oath. There are those who condemn them for refusing to do so. All I will say is this: Jesus is right. Each one of us, the rabbis say, have two desires within us: the desire to do good and the desire to do evil. We require oaths because we are not confident in the triumph of the desire to do good over its evil twin. Where God’s community of integrity and right relationships holds sway, oaths are unnecessary.
I hope you will forgive me if my words today are not as inspiring as you might wish. There are times when a preacher must inform and this is what I have chosen to do today. If the scriptures are to speak to us today, and I believe that they must and that they do, then there are times when they must be broken open. Just as Jesus confronted the religious debates of his times, so too must we face those of our own times, not with slogans but with wisdom, not with texts plucked from their contexts but with the Word of God, comforting and discomforting, soothing and unsettling. Amen.