Of all the conversations I have had about religion and culture, more than any other scripture passage, it has been our reading today. The guilt, shame and regret of divorce is so painful and our scripture doesn’t help much. Jesus has some very strong words about the law and marriage and society But before we assume we know what Jesus is saying here – let’s be sure we know what he’s talking about.
Before we take his words and assume that he speaking to Americans in Indiana in 2014, let’s take his words and understand that we think they were spoken in Aramaic, written in Greek, spoken to Jews and Gentiles on the Mount of Olives around 27 AD.
Jesus has something to say to his community about the laws they follow.
Let’s begin by understanding how Jewish people understood the commandments and laws in general. The Ten Commandments were not given by God as punishment, they were given to a community that needed restoration and direction.
The Ten Commandments were given to people who were in the wilderness – both literally and figuratively. A large community of people, known as Israelites had left a life of slavery, the only life they had ever known, in search of freedom, a concept they have never experienced, in a land they have never seen. They don’t know freedom. They cannot comprehend how a community that is free from slavery is to behave. What does it mean to be a truly free community? Does it mean we are free to do anything? What does freedom in the eyes of God look like?
The Israelites needed parameters of their freedom – a code of communal living. So God provided them with a gift. It’s a gift in which God says “if you want to know freedom, this is how you should treat me and others.” We often think of the Ten Commandments as a list of things we should not do, but in truth they are more about what we should do.
As Perry Yoder has observed, “We have forgotten that Israel’s liberation was an act of God’s grace, not a necessary response to Israel’s merit. Law is how the liberated, saved people of God respond. The Ten Commandments, or literally, the Ten Words essentially set a vision on how to live in a just and safe community.
Every child goes through a phase when they lie to their parents. “Did you take and eat the last piece of cake when I told you not to?” We ask. “No”… they say….as chocolate covers their hands, lips and teeth. Now they are in double trouble, they stole the last piece of cake and they lied about it….to their parents. At least three commandments are broken here and they will be heading straight to eternal damnation. Right? “Wait a minute,” we say. Before we send them to hell, let’s teach our children about why it’s unsafe and unhealthy and unfair to take without asking, to hide the truth and to not obey rules set forth by parents. Because when family members lie to each other – adults or children, the foundation loses trust and when families steal from each other, the foundation loses its stability and when children don’t obey their parents, parent’s lose their minds. – So the Ten Commandments are very much like parameters families put in place to keep their children safe and to ensure that the entire family is respected and trusted. – Are you with me?
O.K. So, now that we understand the purpose of the law, let’s see what Jesus has to say about three of them. Jesus lifts up Murder, Adultery and Divorce. He takes these three huge topics and uses a formula called antitheses. Jesus approaches three laws and says: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately murder, but the anger that lies at it’s core. Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately adultery, but the lust in our hearts. Our real problem, he says, is not when to allow divorce, but the brokenness of our relationships.
The antitheses are challenging — refuse to harbor anger, honor oaths whether in marriage or to your neighbors, desire justice so much that you would rather suffer a wrong than impose one on another, love your enemies and pray to God on their behalf. These teachings indicate that what a person does is only part of the problem. This kingdom demands radical discipleship so that even a person’s thinking transformed by contact with God’s reign. My friend has a bumper sticker that says “your thoughts become your actions, chose them wisely.” That’s Jesus argument this morning.
Jesus is really speaking about morality here and how our internal conversations lead to external behavior. You are not only supposed to not murder, which I think we would all agree is a good thing, but also not harbor the anger and rage that leads to murder. You are not supposed to commit adultery, but have the lust in your heart for the other person that leads to adultery. The issue, Jesus says is not the divorce, but the broken relationships.
Going back to our chocolate cake scenario: It’s one thing to teach our children not to take without asking and then lie about it, because it’s a rule that shouldn’t be broken. It’s another thing for them to understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s a rule or not, we want them to mature to a point that they know what is right and wrong based on a universal understanding of justice and fairness. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg calls this the six stages of moral development. The first stage is Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment. At this stage, children and some adults see rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid punishment. If I take the cake without asking, I will get in trouble, so that’s why I’m not taking the take. If I have an affair, I might get caught so I better not. If I commit murder I could go to jail, so I better think twice.
Advancing all the way to the sixth stage of moral reasoning is based upon universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules. If I take the cake without asking I have not shared and have disrespected our family. If I lust over another person I am objectifying another human being and living in a fantasy world. If I harbor anger over another person to the point that I think about murder I’m actually destroying myself.
I think it’s fair to say that Jesus was the most advanced moral thinker. He made it to the sixth stage and I think that is where Jesus is challenging his audience today. Don’t obey the law because you might get caught, obey the law because the feelings behind the actions hurt you and other people. Put another way, if people didn’t harbor anger there wouldn’t be murder, if their wasn’t lust, there wouldn’t be adultery , if relationships stayed whole, there wouldn’t be divorce. His argument is that anger, lust and broken relationships destroy people and communities.
In the Star Wars movies, there is a character who would definitely be placed at the sixth stage of Kohberg’s thinking and that is of course master Jedi, Yoda. Young Luke Skywalker goes to Yoda for training to be a Jedi Knight. In his training, Yoda tells Luke to do something that seems impossible – to take a ship out of a muddy pond. Luke says, “I will try” And Yoda responds, “No! There is no try. Do. Or do not.”
Jesus telling us, don’t try. Instead, do, or don’t do. Decide. And then act.
Imagine a society that doesn’t harbor anger, isn’t motivated out of lust and keeps relationships whole.
Now, hear me clearly, Jesus knows we are human and we are going get angry, and we are going to think things we shouldn’t and we are going to have brokenness in our relationships. Jesus knows how human we are, because he was just as human. So the purpose of his sermon is not to go home and beat yourself with a rod about how imperfect you are. The purpose of his sermon is to challenge us to live into a higher moral thinking, relying on grace and forgiveness when we fall. It’s to not try. It’s to do. The Pharisees and other law abiding folks may not commit murder, but they still have anger. Jesus says, good luck seeing the kingdom of God. The challenge is living a life of righteousness and righteousness requires grace.
L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become grace-filled people through the daily and disciplined practice of Christian obligations. He writes:
“Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about a ballet dancer, or, if you prefer, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.”
Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to the higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that the kingdom of God may be made known on earth.
Don’t go out into the world and try to be the person God created you to be. There is no try. Do. Or Do not. It’s your choice. Remembering to stay strong in the force. For without it, we will surely fail. – May the Force Be With You.