In this Gospel reading, Jesus calls us beyond what the law says into the spirit of God’s will. Throughout his ministry, Jesus took on the prophetic prerogative to call his hearers beyond what the text of Biblical law commanded to the spirit behind it. So we see in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 that Jesus says “for you have heard that it is said”, followed by a quote either of a Biblical law itself or its orthodox interpretation in his day, then with Jesus saying “but I tell you” some very different interpretation of the principle behind that law.
At times this new interpretation overturns the literal meaning of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus overturns the rules of holy war which call for the death and destruction of the people deemed “enemies”. He calls for a deeper adherence to the Shema at the heart of his Jewish faith and of today the faith of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all people of the Book: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus calls to a deeper application of this core truth that lies at the heart not just of these Biblical faiths but all true spirituality. This deeper application is in recognizing that those whom we experience as adversaries are in fact our neighbors, also children of the same Creator deserving of love and respect. This deeper application calls for working to heal the breaches that divide humanity through acts of love, work of reconciliation, and the cause of justice rather than as in the Mosaic rules of holy war eradicating the one we experience as adversary.
In this example of Jesus doing this same prophetic reinterpretation but in regards to the Mosaic law of divorce, Jesus makes clear why he is able to do such an act. At first glance, these texts of Scripture appear to be God’s very words to us. After all, do not the authors and editors of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy all tell us “the Lord said” as they begin their list of laws? Yet Jesus is clear: Many of these laws are not God’s intent, God’s unending word. Rather some are accommodations to human frailty, short-sightedness, prejudice, and stubbornness. Such accommodations tell us less about God than they do the authors of the texts and their audience. Those laws which Jesus redefines, like the law of divorce and the laws of holy war, are just such laws. They are accommodations to human frailty.
This shows on the one hand that, unlike the religious zealots and law-keepers of our day, God is not first and foremost interested in our moral performance but in a real relationship with us. Instead of waiting until we reach a level of moral and spiritual evolution to see things from God’s perspective, let alone an ability to live without shortsightedness, prejudice, and failure to live up to God’s commands or hopes to have a relationship with us, God meets us where we are. Seen in this way the vexing complex of ancient laws recorded in Scriptures need not be a barrier to God, as those who try to make them into a rigid mold we must be forced into in order to earn Gods’ favor make them, but instead a testament just like God’s entrance into human life in Jesus that God is most interested in a real, authentic relationship with us. To have a relationship with another that is true and genuine, we must be willing to accept them where they are, to love them not for whom we wish they were, but for who they are. And so God is willing to meet us in our frailty, our prejudice, our confusion, not accepting these as good but accepting us as loveable and worth the risk. God knows that a relationship of love with our Creator itself will ignite a fire in we God’s children which will bit by bit transform us, growing us out of our stubborn prejudices into the people God knows we can be.
This suggests to me I need to learn a holy patience with people whose actions, beliefs, and pronouncements strike me as horribly short-sighted, prejudiced, and damaging. It does not mean I need to agree with them or accept them but let us be honest there are those all of us experience as such in our families, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in our churches. I need to not give up on such ones, nor sit in judgment of them as they may sit in judgment of me. Rather as God does with us, I need to recognize that (when it is safe to do so) me seeking an honest, genuine, loving relationship with them as neighbor, co-worker, family member, friends, fellow church member may be the very thing that, like God’s relationship with Israel and us, helps fuel the fires of transformation. I need to recognize that under all the layers of bristly barriers to others glows the glistening spark of divine glory in them too that is the image of God which lies in all people. Learning to respond with love is the only way forward, even though it may make me uncomfortable, while also being true to our own experiences and convictions.
I am reminded myself of how I moved from the conservative perspective of my upbringing, which viewed women as second-place in the church and world, which held gay and lesbian people to be deep in sin, and which viewed other religions as necessarily cutting others off from God & truth. What moved me out of this closed off mindset? It was genuine relationships with people different than me, who demonstrated the love of God in their lives – women who led by God’s power, gay and lesbian people of faith, and people of other faiths full of the light of God in their own way. The real authentic relationships we shared transformed my perspective so that I was able to see them for who they are in God, laying aside the prejudices I had been raised in.
Being people willing to maintain relationships of love and compassion on the level we are able with those in very different places is imitating the path God has taken for us, and opening both yourself and them to deep transformation.
The other side of this truth Jesus demonstrates is the need to move beyond treating the Bible as a book of laws. Jesus is showing us the point of Biblical teaching is not to show us an ironclad list of do’s and don’ts but instead to open us the a living way, a winding path with many different ways of travelling but yet which has as its center the heart of love, of compassion, of justice.
Sadly too often today we take Jesus’ words and the writings of the apostles we find in the New Testament and elsewhere and try to spin together a new tapestry of laws to bind people. I knew a lady who was a friend of my mother growing up who had this very text I’m reading turned into that. A preacher she had known had called her relationship with her husband an abomination, calling her to leave him though married for many years because before she married him she had divorced. That church caused her and her children great harm, by treating Jesus’ words not as an opening up to a new relationship with law and justice but instead a new law.
Jesus is not giving us a new set of laws, nor are the apostles. They are calling us to open our eyes to see the law behind the law, which exists not as a set of code but like the law of nature, a way of moving in the world. The law of nature is less like a set of rules written on paper and more like an ever-moving dance of particles, planets, living things, constantly in motion but in rhythms that can be anticipated and joined. So there is a rhythm to life at the heart of all being which Jesus is pulling away the outer coating of religious life to reveal. It is joining in that rhythm that Jesus is calling us to.
At heart of that rhythm is not, I believe, divorce and remarriage in the sense it exists today but rather – are we faithful people? Do we do our part to make our relationships, both marriage and other relationships, work? Or do we cast people aside when things get difficult? Jesus’ goal is not to bind people up in their pasts, keeping divorced folks stuck forever for the choices of their pasts. Nor is it to keep people stuck in bad relationships when, having done their part, the relationship cannot be salvaged. It is instead to shake up our status quo and invite us to view these relationships in a new way.
In all of our life’s relationships – whether romantic, church, or business – this is a call that transform us if we hear it. Let us open our ears, open our hearts, and let our feet move with action in answer to this call.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,
Your progressive redneck preacher,