The Heart of the Matter
First Presbyterian Church
April 27th, 2014
What wisdom and beauty his Sermon on the Mount
Displays, what energy and prophetic fire!
Yet one phrase, for which I still cannot account,
Reveals the innocence of the young Messiah.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery!” We concur
In what was said of old. Now hear the harder part:
“He who looks on a woman to lust after her,
has committed adultery already in his heart.”
I have often pondered, and I ponder still
That astonishing statement which condemns desire.
Did he think it possible by a mere act of will
To ward off lightning, douse unquenchable fire?
Was it easier for a son of God to smother
Thoughts innate to the rest of humankind?
Or did perhaps, having a virgin mother
Endow him, rather, with a virgin mind?
He was not prurient; he was no puritan;
His mind was generous as the gospel records.
He called himself Son of God, but also Son of Man:
Which of his two natures spoke those daunting words?
Their inhumanity is what makes them odd.
I hold with Blake: “The nakedness of woman
Is the glory of God!” I answer the Son of God:
Adultery in the heart proclaims me human.
When she moves in her beauty, the heart responds unbidden.
Too late then to deny involuntary delight.
And surely he knew how things suppressed and hidden
Infect us with dreams to dupe us in the night.
He spoke, some will say, not of rational admiration
But of animal passion. To take these feelings apart
I offer them Occam’s razor for their operation
Of excluding Love from Adultery in the Heart.
It cannot be done. Each interfuses the other,
Partakes of the other’s nature as water mingles with wine.
To condemn desire is to deny and smother
The root of love. But I take a harder line.
Against that phrase, whose sense, I am afraid,
Duly considered borders on the obscene,
I invoke Peter’s dream: “What God has made
Call not thou common or unclean!”
As you know, we once were told, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, those who leer at a woman with lust have already committed adultery with her in their minds. And if your right eye gets you into trouble, rip it out and throw it away! You’d be better off losing a part of your body, than having your whole boy thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand gets you into trouble, cut it off and throw it away! You’d be better off losing a part of your body, than having your whole body wind up in Gehenna.
We once were told, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you, anyone who divorces his wife (expect in the case of immorality) forces her into adultery; and whoever marries a divorce woman commits adultery.
Again, as you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You shall not break an oath,’ and ‘Oaths sworn in the name of God shall be kept.’ But I tell you, don’t swear at all. Don’t invoke heaven, because it is the throne of God, and don’t invoke earth, because it is God’s footstool, and don’t invoke Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king. You shouldn’t swear by your head either, since you aren’t able to turn a single hair either white or black. Rather, your responses should be simply ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ Anything beyond that is inspired by the evil one.
I was tempted to skip over this section of the Sermon on the Mount. There is just no way to talk about this text or even just to read the text in worship and not touch nerves. No matter what I say, someone or several will be annoyed, irritated, hurt, shamed, or angered. Our familial relationships are primary and primal. The pain of relationships is something everyone knows.
Not only that, we also know about fantasies, desires, socially unacceptable feelings and urges, and shame. Feelings and desires so dark that our hero says will send you Gehenna. Better to gouge out an eye or cut off a hand. Heavy stuff.
Now the section about oaths is a bit odd sounding to modern ears. Certainly the take away is to be true to your word, but the prohibition on oaths probably has something to do with pre-modern fears of magic. Oaths, blessings, and curses were believed to have supernatural power. Perhaps Jesus is sweeping that away or perhaps more likely he wants to distance himself and his disciples from those who practice magical arts. This brings up a question I often wonder about: to what extent did Jesus share the superstitions and beliefs of his time and to what extent was he able to challenge them? And that brings up another question: was everything that Jesus said golden?
That is a bit of a challenge for church folks because it has been drilled into most of us that the Bible, and Jesus in particular, are the Word of God. Jesus just didn’t have an opinion that one could debate. He was Divine, Absolute, and True. When you read something on the lips of Jesus in the Bible, and you don’t understand it or are uncomfortable with it, well it is because of your sinfulness. No matter what he says, he’s right. He’s Jesus after all.
I would say that is pretty much how the teachings of Jesus have been delivered over the years. He said it, you should believe it, and the hierarchy of the church will institutionalize it. More precisely, the church will be selective in what it chooses to institutionalize. It has not institutionalized self-inflicted eye-gouging or limb removal. It has institutionalized policies regarding marriage and divorce. Do you ever wonder about how it is that church decided to make rules about some things Jesus said and not others?
Marriage, divorce and re-marriage has been a big deal. My senior colleagues who were ordained in the 50s and 60s were often asked at the time of their examination whether or not they would officiate at marriages for divorced people. It was one of those litmus test questions. The liberals would do it and the conservatives wouldn’t in those days. It is pretty much a non-issue for Presbyterians today. I officiate at weddings for people who have been divorced. I don’t think that the act of remarriage is adultery. I find it distasteful to moralize about the complexities of people’s lives. Life is difficult and painful enough without adding layers of shame.
That said, the question of marriage, divorce, and remarriage is not abstract for anyone. It is personal and particular. We all have personal feelings about this and about others. Brokenness, injustice, hurt, shame, disappointment, as well as liberation, relief, empowerment, peace, all these and much more are feelings associated with the complexity of human relationships. One rule does not fit all.
Speaking of one rule not fitting all, the litmus test now is over one’s opinion on marriage equality. These passages from Jesus about marriage and divorce are used by conservatives to deny same-gender marriage. Poor Jesus gets blamed for everything.
It is likely that Jesus had an opinion about divorce and remarriage. Even that is tricky. We never can be certain that anything Jesus said in the gospels is actually from him. It could be from him. It could be something remembered out of context or with various degrees of accuracy. It could have been made up by the gospel writer or someone else and placed on his lips. You can make educated guesses but you really can’t be sure. Not only that, but what do we know about marriage in the mix of first century cultures? What was Jesus talking about and why?
This isn’t the only place Jesus is recorded to have spoken about divorce and remarriage. It does seem to me that it is likely that the historical Jesus did have an opinion. It probably went something like this:
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.
We can say, so the guy had an opinion. He also as pointed out in the poem by AD Hope had an opinion about a man looking at a woman with desire as committing adultery in the heart. Notice it wasn’t a woman looking at a man or a woman looking at a woman or a man looking at a man. Maybe Jesus never considered those possibilities. I think the poem by AD Hope makes an interesting point. The fact that he is willing to challenge Jesus makes it more interesting. I think it is more interesting and more healthy to engage authority rather than be obedient to it. Authority is earned by the truth it tells. We can’t ever know if what is said is true until we engage it with heart and mind.
My first point in all of this is that just because Jesus is reported to have said something, that doesn’t mean one should follow it or believe it unconditionally. He may have been speaking about a particular situation, not making absolute pronouncements of divine will for all time. He may be exaggerating. He may have been joking. He may have been taken out of context. It may not even have been him. He may have been wrong. Think for yourself.
I think the best way to honor or to approach a person is to regard him or her as worthy of an argument. I argue and make the case that it is not more pious or righteous to be obedient to scripture than to be critical of scripture. I would say it is more virtuous to engage scripture with all the critical faculties at our disposal. The Bible or any holy text, Jesus or any spiritual or authoritative figure, may be approached sincerely and respectfully with doubt as with belief.
I think we dishonored Jesus when we turned him into a god. We framed him with our needs for divine certainty and in the process stripped him of his humanity. But that is another sermon. I simply want to assert that you have the freedom and have always had the freedom to say,
“Jesus said it. Fine. I disagree.”
But before we agree or disagree with Jesus, it would be good to discover his opinion.
What did the historical Jesus think about divorce and remarriage and why did he think that? Again, evaluating all the statements reported to have been said by Jesus regarding marriage and divorce, what seems most authentic was this opinion by Jesus in a nutshell:
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.
First, notice that he is speaking about a man divorcing his wife, not a woman divorcing her husband. Whatever marriage, divorce, and remarriage might have meant in that context it likely was enmeshed in patriarchal power relations. Dominic Crossan points this out in his book, The Historical Jesus, when he quotes John Kloppenborg:
“The opposition here is not just to divorce. To forbid divorce one has only to say that divorce is never legal…. ‘The attack is actually against 'androcentric honour whose debilitating effects went far beyond the situation of divorce. It was also the basis for the dehumanisation of women, children, and non-dominant males.’” P. 302
Jesus wasn’t moralizing about divorce, nor was he defending patriarchal marriage. He was criticizing the notion that adultery was an insult to the man’s honor. He was turning the tables and defending the woman’s honor over against patriarchal power and arrogance. He was saying in effect:
You, male with power, cannot exercise power to dehumanize another for your pleasure or convenience. That is adultery.
Second, this statement by Jesus didn’t just randomly appear. There is a context. When you read the minutes of a board meeting and you come across a bunch of rules and procedures that have been created, there is likely a story behind it. Someone did something in the past and now a policy is created. So what is the story behind this statement of Jesus? Why did he decide to state an opinion?
I think the story is Herod. John the Baptist criticized Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying Herodias. Herod had John the Baptist executed. This is abuse of power on more than one level. I think Jesus was taking a stand, a courageous stand, and a dangerous stand. He was siding with his friend John, over against a king who exercised power, perhaps legally, but in Jesus’ view immorally against his first wife and against John.
For Jesus, adultery meant abuse of power.
What about adultery of the heart by looking upon a woman with desire? This passage has created a great deal of shame for people over natural feelings, as AD Hope articulated in his poem. Again, it is man desiring a woman, not the other way around. We are still in the context of patriarchy.
The Jesus Seminar voted that saying as not from Jesus. They thought it was Matthew’s repetition of and comment on the commandment in Exodus 20:17:
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
In this patriarchal context the issue is not so much lust in a sexual sense as it is desire for things and people that do not belong to us. As Matthew frames this sermon, what begins in the heart, eventually expresses itself in action. It isn’t a criticism of natural desire as much as the desire to abuse power. Abuse of power and violence begins in the heart.
I am not really sure what to make of it, actually.
I want to hear the critique by AD Hope. I think this passage has caused great shame over something that is the most powerful natural instinct human beings have, that is sexual desire. If that is what this passage is about, a condemnation of natural feelings, then there is something odd about it. I would reject it, too.
On the other hand, if this passage is really about guarding one’s heart so it doesn’t lead to abuse of power and to dehumanizing others, then I think it does invite us to a higher level of self-reflection.
Rather than simply justifying ourselves because we think we obeyed the letter of the law, the direction here and of the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount is the willingness to go deeper and to examine our motivations and our heart so that we can become our best selves.
In that line of interpretation, this is Emmett Fox’scommentary on this passage from his book, The Sermon on the Mount:
In this unforgettable paragraph, Jesus stresses the Master Truth, so utterly fundamental, yet so unsuspected by the world at large, that what really matters is thought. People have always been accustomed to suppose that as long as their deeds conformed to the law, they have done all that can be reasonably expected of them, and that their thoughts and feelings are of little importance, and that in any case these are their own business exclusively. But we know now that any outward act is but the sequel to a thought, and that the type of thought which we allow to become habitual will sooner or later find expression on the plane of action. We understand now, in the light of Scientific Christianity, that thoughts literally are things, and that our choice of conduct really lies in our choice of the kind of thought that we permit to occupy the stage of our mind. In other words, we have discovered that wrong thought is just as destructive an act as a wrong deed….
Lust, jealousy, vengeance, mentally entertained, carry the soul’s consent; and this soul-consent is the malice of sin, whether the corresponding outer acts be yet materialized or not. “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” Pp. 68-9.
AD Hope or Emmett Fox? I’ll let you decide.
And maybe that is the great value of the wisdom of Jesus, he made people think and still does.