This past Tuesday we passed an important mile marker: we finished the Bible Challenge, our year of reading the Bible and paying closer attention to it in our public worship; congratulations! Some of you were able to read the whole Bible over the course of the year; some are still working on it…a marathon takes a long time. Some of signed up for what we called the “half-marathon” – reading through the New Testament, a chapter a day. Some of you signed up to read a Psalm a day – all 150 of them; and during Advent the Psalms (and You Tube links to musical settings of them) became our daily e-mail meditations.
And those who participated in the “fun run” read the Gospel of Matthew during Lent. And, of course, week by week, we prayed the Bible Challenge Prayer and opened our hearts and minds further to what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us in the words of Scripture.
There were certainly people who started some form of the Bible Challenge who couldn’t finished what they had hoped to do, and others who weren’t sure this was something they could – or even wanted to – participate in; that is very understandable. But this Challenge wasn’t just about what individuals got out of it, but about how we as a parish – as the Body of Christ – are formed and shaped and guided and matured by our engagement with the Bible.
Last week at the Annual Meeting I saw a really good example of how we, as a congregation, are growing in our relationship with God through Scripture. We broke up into pairs, a passage from Luke’s Gospel was read aloud, and two questions were asked: 1) What caught your imagination while the passage was being read, and 2) What might you want to ask a Biblical scholar?
After the pairs listened to each others’ responses and shared them with the whole group there was a final question: What might God be up to/saying to us in this passage today?
There were some very good responses and questions, especially relating to parts of the passage that presented Jesus in a sharper or harsher light; an inquisitiveness; a willingness to ask challenging questions. Good for you! I’m not sure we could have done that so readily a year ago before we had undertaken the Bible Challenge – at least, not out loud in front of other people.
So with all that as background, it almost seems like this morning’s Gospel reading was put there to test our Bible reading mettle – and just when we thought we had made some progress! What catches my attention in this passage? Words like judgment, hell of fire, lust, adultery, divorce, tearing out your eye, cutting off your hand….it makes me want to run in the opposite direction.
And what would I want to ask a Bible scholar? Many things – including: Are murder and verbal abuse really on the same level as far as God’s concerned? What does an offense against a brother or sister in faith have to do with being hauled up before the judge? Is the answer to sin really cutting off body parts? Is unchastity or immorality the only grounds for divorce? And what is this about swearing?
See what I mean? This is a very challenging text. So take a deep breath, let’s back it up a little, and get some context that may prove helpful.
This passage comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – chapters 5 though 7 in Matthew – which was itself an amalgam of many things that Jesus said or taught. Matthew places it at the beginning of his public ministry as if Jesus were saying – “If you want to know what the Kingdom of God is all about, and if you want to be my follower, here is what you are in for.” So if it feels like Jesus is piling on…you are right. And it probably helps to know that Jesus of made use of hyperbole – exaggerated or amplified speech that he used to get his point across; he certainly did not want us to go around chopping off body parts.
Maybe one of the things that caught your attention was the way Jesus said “You have heard it said…but I say to you”; he did that four times. This is because Jesus was discussing the religious law; in the passage immediately before this (which we heard last week) he says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
So here we have Jesus taking up different parts of the Law and asking his followers to understand them more deeply, not just check the boxes that they have scrupulously complied with the letter of them.
The passage about divorce may well be one of the most painful and puzzling parts of this whole reading; again, context will be helpful here. In the ancient world there was nothing to prevent a man from getting rid of a wife who displeased him.
A divorce certificate was supposed to provide some protection for a woman, because a reason had to be provided, but over time the acceptable reason for divorce became as frivolous as saying that a woman had burnt her husband’s dinner. And then the woman would be out on the street with no home, no financial support and no chance of re-marriage. This still goes on today in the Orthodox Jewish community. Of course our society is very different, and we recognize that divorce can sometimes be the only healthy option when a marriage has fallen apart. But the point that Jesus was making is that the commitments we make are serious and important, and there are painful consequences when they are broken – even when we know we have no other option.
And those things that Jesus had to say about swearing – that’s the fourth commandment, not taking the Lord’s Name in vain? What he is addressing here has to do with grandiosity, with making your promise or statement more true or more important in swearing to its veracity by the most sacred things.You know how children, when badgering for permission to do something, will say “Please – pretty please – pretty please with a cherry on top?” - it’s like that. Instead, Jesus is telling us to let our personal integrity show through our speech; a simple and direct “yes” or “no” should be sufficient.
There is so much more that we could delve into, and wonder about, and unpack, and be uncomfortable with in this Gospel reading. But for today it is enough for each one of us to ask: What caught my imagination in this passage, and what particularly, might I like to ask a Bible scholar about? And for all of us, what might God be up to in this passage; what might God being saying to us today?
We can ask these questions because of the year we have just lived through, because we now have a wider and deeper experience of the Bible. And we can ask these questions knowing that our trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God is never misplaced, that God’s loving purposes for us and for all creation are at the root of God’s Kingdom, and everything Jesus did and said.
As we continue to grow in our relationship with God, as our understanding of Scripture continues to deepen, and as we mature in faithfulness, we will find that this engagement with the Spirit in the words of the Bible will ultimately lead to life and blessing as it brings us closer to the truth of God. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 16, 2014