If you were at church this past Sunday, you heard a hard gospel. Boldly, Jesus repeats the phrase, "You have heard it said....but I say to you" utilizing a style of midrash not very familiar to the ears of 21st century Christians. But the situations he reinterprets definitely are: broken relationships with family; insults and harboring resentments; adultery, marriage, divorce; liable in court, and swearing against God.
With drastic metaphors of amputation and eternal damnation, he makes it very clear that while the inherited religious tradition lays out a game plan for how 1st century faithful people are to handle our fractured situations, the intentions within our fractured hearts are what matter.
Is your heart reconciled? Are your actions compassionate and merciful? Have you examined your motivations? Are your choices sincere attempts towards fulfilling the law? Or following the law? His interpretations indicate there is a difference which makes sense, given that he previously said the same
A few weeks ago over lunch with some clergy colleagues we bemoaned that this gospel was coming up in the worship lectionary. How ironic, one of us noted, that the weekend begins with Valentine's Day, a celebration (albeit a sentimental and commercialized one) of love. And then ends with an angry diatribe by Jesus describing separation in love in various painful ways..
We talked about the weight we feel as pastors and preachers when a text like this comes around. Seminary did a great job teaching us how to teach this text. The historical, societal and religious context of Matthew's gospel informs everything about how to interpret this passage. But teaching isn't preaching.
We feel burdened, because this text is burdensome. We know our people already have plenty to weigh them down. The same is true for us. All of us are looking for answers. All of us are seeking strength and hope. We want to know that God is with us, not judging us, as we struggle with the relationships in our lives.
Divorce, separation, adultery, family discord, angry and hurtful speech. We hear these words and they hit our hearts. We have our own experiences of these situations, worlds away from the experiences of Matthew's intended audience. How are we to hear this text? Where do we start?
We have to start where Jesus did at the beginning of this teaching. "Blessed are you. Blessed are you who mourn. Blessed are you who are merciful, compassionate. Blessed are you who seek peace and reconciliation (Matt 5:1ff)."
That is the fulfillment of the law. That is what Jesus came to preach. In Romans, Paul writes, "Love is the fulfillment of the law." Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry proclaims, "If it's not about love, it's not about God." (Rom 13:8-10) So that's where we start. It's certainly where I start when I dig into a text like this one.
We open the ears of our hearts, like we heard Moses encourage us to do, Well, that's hard when our hearts are hurting.
When I got divorced, I was very angry. My heart was not in a listening mood. I was angry at systems and processes I had to abide by. I was angry at advice columns and blog posts that told me what I should be doing or feeling. I was angry I now had to share custody of my child. I was angry I was getting divorced, even though I knew it was the "right" thing to do.
And I was really angry at God.
Anger helped me compartmentalize. Anger can be like fuel. My anger gave me energy to get through my day. In a weird way, it gave me strength to be (what I hope) was a compassionate pastor to people struggling through difficult situations, and, celebratory ones.
One day I got a call from a good friend who is also a priest and therapist. I'd just finished watching the umpteenth movie about divorce and was sobbing my head off. I asked him, "Why do I keep watching these movies? Why don't I watch comedies or something uplifting? Something that makes me feel happy?"
He sighed. And then thoughtfully replied, "Look, something really sad is happening in your life, and you’re angry about it. You're not yet ready to open your heart to the grief. But another part of you knows your heart needs that. So, you watch these movies – which lets you, with some safety. The movie isn’t your life. And then it ends, you’ve had a good cry and you can get back to being angry.
But when you’re ready – you’ll get to that softer, sad, compassionate place – where healing and reconciliation live in your own circumstances. Slowly, you’ll move through the grief and find new life."
Every Sunday, we confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart. We protect our heart. We guard it. When relationships in our lives are ending or broken we face a scary unknown future. We can lash out, we can get self-righteous, we can do a myriad of things to armor up as opposed to moving through the circumstances in our life.
"God comes to us disguised as the circumstances in our life." (Paula D'Arcy) Jesus reminds us of that. God is more easily known, for sure, in the "good" stuff. But God comes to us disguised, entangled, hidden within ALL OF IT. The messy, hard, unpleasant parts too.
What we try and push away because we believe it is getting in the way, usually is the way we have to go.
In answer to the question, "What does Jesus say about divorce?" I have to answer, "Which Jesus?" The Jesus of Matthew, Luke, Mark or John? The historical Jesus of Nazareth who was born in a particular time and place and into a particular religious tradition? That's a rabbit-hole question for seminary and biblical studies.
The answer I preach is what do YOU say about divorce, or any of the other circumstances Jesus lists. That is where I hear Jesus challenging us to look. Into the depths of our hearts. And our answers have everything to do with our starting place.
I'm starting with love. A love that surpasses the sentiment of Valentine's Day. A love that reconciles relationships even when relationships have ended. A love that gives us that peace that surpasses understanding. A love that came to fully live into humanity so we would know our humanity is blessed.
Wherever and however you are protecting your heart, be it with anger or some other outward-directed defense, underneath that protection is probably where God is waiting for you. Waiting for you to move through the armor, take off the defenses, and open your heart to healing and blessing, to take in the reconciliation that Christ Jesus is offering you. Amen.