Rules and Relationships – a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.  (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-37)

I suspect that all of us were shocked and dismayed this week by the latest published findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The statistics are devastating! The Catholic church’s own figures include:

  • 4,444 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse between 1980 and 2015
  • 1,880 people holding positions in the Catholic Church, including priests, identified as alleged perpetrators
  • In some orders, in particular, the problem seems absolutely rampant! 40 per cent of the members of the brothers of St John of God had allegations of abuse made against them between 1950 and 2010! 40 per cent!

What can we do about this?

This was the question I raised at the clergy Fraternal meeting we had last Thursday at St Brigid’s church in Marrickville (the largest Catholic church in our region). I asked my fellow clergy there “what can we do about this?”

I made it clear “I don’t consider this your problem. I consider it our problem. And not just for us, the church, but for the whole community! What are we supposed to do?”

As we might expect, nobody there had a simple solution. “Apologise, and try to be honest about the situation” was the main response, but this hardly seems sufficient.

If the church were a normal company, this tragedy would spell the end of the company. Assets would be dissolved, victims paid out as best as they could be, and those staff who escaped prosecution would seek gainful employment elsewhere. This isn’t likely to happen in the case of the church, but what is going to happen? What can be done to heal this gaping wound in the side of the body of Christ?

As I say, I didn’t get many answers from my fellow clergy but I was initially encouraged when I looked at this week’s Gospel reading, seeing Jesus come down hard on sexual indiscretion, and sensing that here we might find some answers!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30)

Jesus, it seems, takes sexual immorality seriously! Admittedly, looking at a woman lustfully and sexually abusing a child are two very different things. Further, I think most of us would question whether plucking out eyes and cutting off hands is really the best way to solve the problem. Perhaps it would be worth trying dropping the mandatory celibacy rule amongst Catholic clergy first and seeing if that helps?

In truth, the more thought I gave to this teaching of Jesus, the less sure I was that it was intended to help us deal with our sexual problems, any more than the teaching immediately preceding it – about how getting angry at your brother is as bad as murdering him (Matthew 5:21-22) – is intended to help us deal with our tempers.

It’s not immediately obvious either how we’re supposed to make sense of these verses in terms of the moral equivalence they seem to teach, where getting angry seems to be as bad as murdering, and lusting as bad as committing adultery!

They remind me of a verse in the Qur’an (5:32) that says “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption done in the land – it is as if he had slain all humankind”. My knee-jerk response to that is that even if it’s just as bad for the killer (in a sense), it’s obviously better for the rest of humankind. Likewise, with Jesus’ teaching, even if it is just as bad to be angry with someone as it is to kill them, and just as bad to lust after someone as it is to rape them (just as bad for the perpetrator, that is), it’s obviously a lot better for the ‘victims’, and in the case of the child sex-abuse tragedy, it’s the victims that we really need to be concerned about.

In truth, it’s difficult to be sure about the practical value of these teachings of Jesus, and perhaps that’s an indication that these teachings are not actually given to us as a part of some sort of manual ‘Four Simple Steps to a Holier Life’.

I read a fascinating book last week called “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien – a book that makes the point that reading the Bible is always an exercise in cross-cultural communication – and I found the book particularly helpful in the way it described the role of law in Ancient Near Eastern culture, as compared to the way rules and laws are treated in our day.

The key point that the authors of the book tried to make in this regard was that rules and laws in the Ancient Near Eastern world only ever made sense in terms of the relationships that they were relevant to, whereas in our world we tend to do things the other way around – we define our relationships in terms of rules!

When someone enters a working relationship with us, we draw up an employment contract with various rules and KPI’s (key performance indicators) that define the relationship. This is as true for the church as it is for any other business. The disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, had no contract, let alone superannuation, insurances, risk-management agreements, safe-ministry practices or KPI’s, but they did have a relationship that included various obligations and expectations. It’s just that these obligations and expectations often went without being said.

The patron/client relationship, to give another example, was one of the key relationships that defined the world of the first century, and one that is in the background all the time in the writings of the New Testament, though we tend to be blithely unaware of this. Once we understand the way patron/client relationships worked though, it helps us understand some of the things that go on in the New Testament and some of the theology of the New Testament as well!

When Paul refuses to accept money from the church in Thessalonica, for instance (2 Thessalonians 3:8), he’s not simply being proud. His refusal makes sense when we realise that accepting patronage from the church would have brought with it various expectations that Paul might not have felt that he was able to fulfil.

This is the way patron/client relationships worked. Patrons would give gifts and do favours for their clients. Their clients would respond by being available to them when needed and serving their interests as best they could. Interestingly, the two key Greek words used to describe this relationship were ‘Charis’ (grace), describing the generosity of the patron to the client, and ‘pistis’ (faith) being the proper response from the client, and we know how central those concepts were in Paul’s theology.

The point is that relationships – patron/client relationships, marriage relationships, family relationships, and any number of other relationships – determined how rules and laws were applied, and sometimes some laws would apply to some people when the same law wouldn’t apply in the same way to someone with whom we had a different sort of relationship, and this is not something we can easily accommodate.

Our understanding of laws is that they apply all the times and to all persons, regardless of who they are. Our image of ‘lady justice’ is that she is blindfolded and hence no respecter of persons. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible though tells us that the God of the Old and New Testaments doesn’t work that way at all!

God’s eyes are wide open and God does play favourites! The God of the Bible does not treat all people equally, according to abstract standards. On the contrary, God elects certain persons and certain nations as His special people, and in matters of justice, God is biased towards the poor!

“He has cast down the mighty from thrones and has raised up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) This isn’t just the testimony of Mary. It’s the story of the Bible as a whole!

To take a different sort of example, Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, lays down (what appears to be) a hard and fast rule against the circumcision of non-Jews:

“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” (Galatians 5:2)

He is equally clear with the church in Corinth:

“Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.” (1 Corinthians 7:18)

Paul’s teaching in this regard is straightforward and unambiguous, and we’re told in Acts 15 that he argues his case with the other Apostles, and indeed convinces them that non-Jewish, uncircumcised Christians should under no circumstances be forcibly circumcised, and then, in the very next chapter (Acts 16:3) we’re told that Paul circumcises a Greek guy named Timothy. Why? Because the two of them were about to head in to a predominantly Jewish area and Paul didn’t want to offend anybody! What the …?

One of the authors of the book I mentioned spent much of his life as a Baptist missionary in Indonesia, where he says relationships still define rules. He recounted the first time he attended a pastors’ conference there, where he expected to see only men, as the Indonesian Baptist Church had a rule that only men could be pastors. He was surprised to see a number of women there and he asked the organiser about it. “I thought you had a rule that only men could be pastors”. “Yes”, responded the organiser, “and most of them are”.

The same author imagines confronting the Apostle Paul in a similar way. “Hey Paul, Priscilla and the Apostle Junia are pastoring churches, yet you said that only men are allowed to be preachers!” He imagines that Paul’s response would be identical – “Yes, and most of them are!”

Now … we seem to have drifted a long way from the teachings of Jesus about anger and lust, recorded in Matthew chapter five, but I believe this is actually all relevant.

I think that we get mixed up when reading Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter five because we go in looking for a law, when what Jesus is actually doing is trying to help us understand God’s laws in the context of the relationships that define them!

The law says “thou shalt not kill”, but what God is looking for here is not just that you abide by the rule, such that you can abuse someone as much as you like so long as you don’t actually kill them. There are lots of ways of abusing your brother that aren’t explicitly forbidden by any law, but that doesn’t mean that any of them OK!

Likewise, avoiding adultery is not in itself the key to healthy marriage! You can’t carry on lewdly and lustfully and think that you’ve done all that is required by both God and your partner just because you haven’t broken that specific law.

The problem starts when we let rules govern our relationships rather than letting it happen the other way around. When you have a relationship of love and integrity you tend to follow the rules as a matter of course, but the relationship must come first!

This is most obvious of all in the fourth and final exhortation that we get from Jesus in this Gospel passage – His exhortation regarding oaths:

“Again, you’ve heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)

In the background here is a complex system of oaths that had been developed, allowing you to ‘keep your fingers crossed’ (so to speak) while making promises. Legal loopholes had been created that allowed you to break your promises without actually breaking the law!

Jesus says ‘let your yes be yes and your no be no’. In other words, have integrity in your relationships instead of letting your relationships be defined by these rules!

When seen in this light, Jesus’ apparently harsh words regarding divorce and remarriage make perfect sense: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

It is tragic, I think, that any number of Christians have understood Jesus here to be laying down more laws – harsher and less forgiving laws, in fact, than those initially established under Moses! Jesus’ point, in context, is surely that we should be putting the relationship first, rather than using the divorce law as a legal loophole – as a way of legitimising abuse.

I’ve recounted before the time I went down to Melbourne to appear as a guest on a TV show John Safran was doing, and one of the other guests I got talking to was someone who used to be a ‘professional wife’ in Iran!

Prostitution was illegal where she came from but polygamy was not, so she would marry the men who came to her as clients, let them have their way with her, and then get a divorce certificate from them before they left. I didn’t think to ask her how she did the marriage ceremonies without a Sheikh present (as I can’t imagine any self-respecting Sheikh being complicit in the process) but the point was that she was not a sex-worker, and the married men who came to her were in no way committing adultery! They had found a legal loophole in the law of God!

Jesus had no time for this sort of sophistry – manipulating relationships through the misuse of laws. If you’re going to trade in your partner for a younger, more compliant model, don’t think that issuing a divorce certificate makes the process less abusive! Abuse is abuse, whether it’s technically legal or otherwise. The goal must be to establish relationships of integrity. When we do this, following the rules is no longer an issue.

This in fact brings us back to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, though we’re no longer at same the point where we started.

If you read the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, you may have seen the article by Rachel Brown entitled Church laws deliberately misused to cover up sex claims”. According to the article, “Catholic church authorities deliberately misused their own legal code to excuse claims of child sexual abuse and protect alleged perpetrators.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly what Jesus is railing against in these teachings, recorded in Mathew chapter five – religious folk who manipulate the law in order to excuse abuse. Jesus, it seems, had zero tolerance for this.

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30)

The real way forward, of course, doesn’t necessarily involve cutting anything off. Rather, it involves putting relationships first, and living in love, for “love is the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13:1)

first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on February 12th, 2017

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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