I hate it when the text
is so onerous and foggy
that I have to spend all my preaching time
just to get to it.
But that is where we are today.
I love that piece from Ecclesiasticus
and will wander back to it
after dealing with Matthew.
First of all,
remember that Matthew
was a Jew
writing to Jewish Christians
and for him
those 613 laws
were front and center.
Unlike Mark and Luke
who were Gentiles and could
work with them more conveniently
and with less emotional entanglement,
Matthew stood within
and honored their sacredness.
But even with Matthew
it is not as cut and dried as it seems.
If we stop at a surface reading of Matthew
then what we hear is:
Any of us who has ever felt anger,
engaged in adultery,
got a divorced,
or have taken an oath
in a court of law or elsewhere,
is condemned out of hand.
But there must be something else
going on here, because
that is not the Jesus
that bleeds through elsewhere.
What I think Jesus is doing
in each case of these tough-talking
dictations on the Law of Moses,
is digging underneath the letter of the law
and searching for a deeper meaning.
As he did so well,
he grapples with the root purpose of the law.
It is too easy, Jesus is saying,
to have a set of rules
and treat them like a bundle of sticks
that we either carry or break.
What is the purpose of the rule, he asks.
What are the relationships
the las is intended to honor and sustain?
Why was the rule created in the first place?
Judges and lawyers at court
can argue about what the letter says,
prophets and preachers
want to know what is underneath —
what is the root purpose
for which it was given?
Jesus is really hearkening back to Moses
(which he does in Matthew)
by saying: Don’t just know the law,
remember why it was given it.
Jesus understands that murder
doesn’t just happen, it begins
with anger and hatred and resentment.
In order to fulfill the law
especially in a culture of blood-libel
and blood debt,
we have to manage our anger and hatred.
He is being practical
the presence of anger within us.
Manage you anger,
or you will not be able to live within the law.
It is the same kind of thing
when he is talking about lust,
adultery and divorce.
Managing lust, like anger,
is the key to being able to keep the law,
not to mention marriage.
Just as we cannot live without feeling angry,
we cannot live without feeling lust, Jesus says.
So manage your lust
and you will be able to keep the Law.
It is not enough to say
there is a rule
and live by the rules,
we have to acknowledge our humanity.
We are not rule creatures,
that is the whole point
of the Garden of Eden story.
So we begin by acknowledging our lust,
or anger or gluttony or envy –
whatever the agitation –
and work with it
listen to it
If we do that,
then living within the law is doable.
But if we simply deny what we “shouldn’t” feel
and pretend that we don’t
want to do things that we break the rules,
then those root agitations
will become more powerful
than our other desires or intentions.
That is when we will stumble.
That is what Jesus is saying about lust and anger.
Now adultery and divorce.
I feel I have to go through this
every time Jesus’ teaching on divorce
comes up in the lectionary. Why?
Because the Christian tradition
is just plain ugly.
Whether it is the pope and Henry VIII
using divorce as a diplomatic
and military weapon
or hanging witches,
we have to admit
our history is just ugly.
There is plenty of beautiful too,
but we need to call our baby ugly when it cries.
In Jesus’ day,
among first century Judeans anyway,
adultery was a crime of property –
because a wife was a man’s property.
Unlike Roman law,
and unlike most of the cultures surrounding them,
a Judean woman could not divorce her husband.
Only a husband could divorce.
The only real argument in the law
was whether there had to be stated grounds
said that a man could only divorce
his wife if she had committed adultery,
while Rabbi Hillel
taught that a man could divorce
his wife for any reason,
even bad breath or lousy cooking.
A man having sex with an unmarried woman
was not adultery
because there was no property involved.
So Jesus enters this argument and
“Look, marriage is not something
that can be dissolved
as if it never happened.
Even if you get a divorce
the echoes of that former marriage
stay with both of you,
and enter the new marriage with you.
Divorce is not a solution to what ails you.
It is as if Jesus is saying, “Divorce may be a necessity,
and it may even be the best of choices for you,
but it does not fix what is broken within you;
and once re-married,
an old marriage does not go away
just because the law allows it.”
So Jesus is not offering
a straight up or down vote on divorce
like the Roman Catholic Church,
and some Protestant Churches
want to pretend that it is.
Rather, it is a tacit acknowledgement
that the internal and relational agitations
that destroy marriage,
are not solved by divorce –
even though divorce is allowed by the law.
And there is one more thing implied by Jesus:
marriage is not a property law.
In talking about marriage and divorce
the way Matthew has Jesus doing it,
Jesus is actually promoting
what we would call in our world,
the equality of women and men.
Specifically, and elsewhere,
he supports his argument about marriage
by sighting the creation story
in which it says that we were created
“male and female in the image of God.”
In other words,
marriage is the relationship
we know that it is,
not a property transaction.
Divorce is legal under the law, and he confirms it.
But it doesn’t deny or erase
the relationship that once existed.
Because the law allows it, he suggests,
does not mean that the bond that existed
Because this is what he teaches,
in another place the scribes
and those with a fetish for the letter of the law,
try to trip him up
with absurd arguments
about what happens in the afterlife
when all those once married people
are together in the same time and space.
Jesus refuses to massage their fetish
and does not engage in the argument.
Okay, I have done my duty
to tilt at the windmill
of ugly Christian teachings
that what Matthew looks like
is not what it really is.
So back to Sirach.
What is this book?
Like the book of Proverbs,
it is a catalogue of proverbial
wisdom, laid out with a lack of
It is also
not included in the Jewish
canon of Biblical texts.
For one, it was written
after the so-called “time of prophecy”
had ceased. And then,
at the time Judaism was forming
its canon, Sirach
was embraced by the Catholic Church.
In fact, the word “Ecclesiasticus”
is Latin for “Church book.”
Sirach points to its author,
Ben Sira, originally written in Hebrew
and translated into Greek
by his grandson.
Scraps of the Hebrew text
were found at Masada
so we know it had early status
within Judaism before
the more modern rabbic period.
Anyway, all of that is neither here nor there,
just a little history for those interested
and wondering what Sirach is.
The bit we read today
is viscerally practical wisdom
we know in our gut.
How we live
and what we do
is our choice.
Fire or water – we get to choose.
We know this with clarity
underneath our propensity for denial
and the self-fogging confusion
we like to create
at critical moments of decision.
Fire and water
life and death
we get to choose.
It is in the tradition of prophetic wisdom
that says to us,
”Look, God will not
save you from your choices.
God doesn’t punish
and does not want you to suffer.
But God will allow you to make your choice
and then you will live with the consequences.
Do not pretend
or flare up magical thinking
to imagine God will clean up behind you.”
Make your dang choice,
the voice of Ben Sira says.
You know which is life and which is death;
you know the difference
between fire and water. Do it.
I love that voice,
the prophetic wisdom
that can niggle its way into our brain
and clear the fog we create
to soften our reality.
”Hey, climate change is real.
Either you change you ways
or your planet is going to come roaring back
and flatten, burn, and drown you.”
A yep, I think that was the message
of Noah’s Ark.
“Hey, don’t try to be God
and use your limited knowledge
to re-create yourselves
or the beauty of your bodies
and the joys of your experience, or you
will be tortured by unanticipated consequences.”
A yep, that was the message
of the Garden of Eden.
In our haughty, post-modern sophistication
we dismiss the wisdom of ancient people’s
as primitive and ignorant.
When actually, there is not
a hair of difference
between them and us.
Heck, the more we are learning about
Neanderthals, the less difference
there seems between them and us.
Yet we continue to dismiss
the wisdom of our ancients
and find ourselves in great peril as a result.
No, we cannot just take the text
at its literal word.
No, we cannot fetishize the letter of the law
No, we cannot just stop
with the literal teachings of Jesus.
Yes, we have to contextualize them
and interpret them
and re-interpret them
but always take them seriously.
The wisdom of the ancients
in Christianity and other religions,
have a voice
we need to listen to
and take seriously.
It is our choice: Fire or water. We get to choose.