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The Bible can be Funny?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Gale Davis on February 16, 2014

Epiphany 6A 2014

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8; I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

As you likely have figured out, I do not always take the bible literally. That does not mean that I don’t take it very seriously, I do, and I try to frame my life around what (with the help of scholars, colleagues, preachers, authors, parishioners and others) I have come to trust it says, what I have learned about what Jesus taught, and did, and encouraged others to be, and do.

Which is why I sometimes think the bible is pretty funny. Yes, one can take something very seriously, live by it in fact, drink it in every day, and still find humor in it. A portion of today’s gospel is one such piece of humor for me. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away ... if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away!”

See, if we or the disciples or other followers of Jesus, really understood Jesus to be literal about this, we would have stories of their self mutilation to match their often reported mistakes and sins. We would have centuries of martyrs and just plain folks like you and me to hear about who had cut one limb or another off. Eyes plucked, ears sliced...imagine! We would all show up here with our various wounds bandaged and appearing more like zombies than pleasant middle-class Americans in the 21st century.

And when you think about that, isn't it funny? Jesus notoriously used hyperbole and exaggeration to make his points -- his parables and instructions are full of them -- and so when we encounter a passage like today’s gospel, we need to smile, because we are in on the joke. We know Jesus is making a point! And then ask ourselves, just what is the point of all this “mutilation for God” Jesus is using? What does he want us to understand?

I would say the underlying theme in the gospel this morning is relationships. Jesus is trying to get us to understand that true relationships cannot be governed by "laws", not even “the Laws” of Moses or the 10 commandments. Relationships, if the meaning behind these admonitions is to be believed, right relationships, are the fabric of our souls and of God’s ways.

We have all heard the expression 'live the intent of the law rather than the letter of it', and today’s gospel, with humor and integrity and clear instruction, urges us to tend our relationships. They are the heart and center of the intent of the law.

We are not to murder -- okay, few of us ever do, not tough for most of us to keep that admonition. Until Jesus adds something: it is not enough to not murder anyone, it is more than that. Jesus says, we are not to carry anger or judgment or make insults and heave them at one another. Ouch -- none of us, I would guess, is able to do that completely! Further, Jesus suggests, when we are angry at someone, or if we have been wronged by someone (for we are all victim and perpetrator alike at different times), we are to mend, to reconcile our relationships before we worship or present God with our alms.  

That is one of the reasons I like the Indian liturgy we are currently using. Having the confession and peace at the beginning of worship allows us in a real and tangible way to put this teaching into practice. It gives us a way of acting that embodies this idea of being at peace in our relationships, being one with each other and God before we begin our worship. Symbolically it makes it difficult to be estranged from one another. It invites us to put aside anger -- any anger we might carry -- and leave it at the altar with with all our other offerings.

Wisely Jesus reminds us that if we carry anger and refuse to be reconciled, going to court or using the whole system of laws available to us, be they secular (our court system) or sacred, it will be much worse, for laws can never create peace between  the estranged or wronged. Such reconciliation only comes through true, face-to-face recognition of the full humanity of the other, even those who have hurt us. Reconciliation as brothers and sisters in Christ can bring true peace, true grace. Such reconciliation requires our hearts to change, requires an inward transformation that accepts even those we find most difficult to love -- or even like -- as our fellow Christians.

Further, Jesus goes on to suggest that it would be a violation of the intent of the law if a man were able to just hand his wife a certificate of divorce and tell her to get lost. The laws, civil and religious, of the time would certainly have allowed that. But Jesus proclaims that all people in a relationship are equal partners. To this point women were understood to be possessions of the man in marriage, and could be traded or dismissed as easily -- in fact more easily -- than a cow or horse or camel. No, says Jesus, marriage is about a relationship, a partnership between two people, not a set of laws that women must obey in order to keep their husbands happy. 

As a woman who was divorced for 17 years before I met Ernie and we have remarried, this teaching on divorce was always very difficult for me and produced a lot of guilt. I know there are many who do not go to church because their parents were divorced, or they are the product of a second marriage, or are themselves divorced and they feel as though this admonition from Jesus is condemning them, rather than being the means to uplift and comfort them.

Divorce, I trust Jesus to be saying, is not a simple wham bam, 'you are gone and I can carry on', male, or for that matter in our day and age female, letter of the law, kind of willy nilly “I have found someone who catches my fancy better than you” institution. Rather it is often the means through which good people can truly keep their marriage vows to honor and love their partner. When the differences between them become untenable for all parties to live with day by day, divorce can allow each to have a better, more respectful, integrity-filled relationship with each other apart than they ever could together. 

I do not think Jesus would say “stay married even in abusive marriage” or “stay married even when your children are being mistreated” or “stay married -- no divorce for any reason.” Well, we know he didn’t, for he cites adultery as a reason that one might divorce. Even as we know, in the spirit of the intent of the law, that there are many forms of adultery in our day and age, though there was only one in first century Palestine. A woman could commit adultery. Men could not, by definition, commit adultery, except with a married woman. But slaves, unmarried women, all okay...not adultery for men. It was for women because she was the man’s property, his wife, and such action was considered to be defiling his property. The law had nothing to do with relationship. We are not to embrace that one exception provided so legalistically that we forget the real intent of this teaching from Jesus is to help us honor our relationships, especially those with the people who are closest to us and with whom we have made vows and commitments. He is teaching us that all human relationships are to be based on mutual respect and not exploitation, and certainly not ownership of one person by another.

This little gospel summary of living the intent of the law ends with the subject of veracity and vow making -- appropriately enough. A quote I found this week by an unknown author calls into question this need we seem to have to raise our hands and swear to the truth of something, be it in a court of law or in hushed whispers to a friend.  The author said, “The necessity of taking oaths presumes that individuals will not tell the truth unless compelled to do so." In contrast, Jesus calls his followers always to be completely honest, thereby eliminating the need for oaths. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Christian people are to go beyond the letter of the law into its heart. When we mean yes, say it. When we mean no, do likewise. 

It is in that place of candid honesty we find the heart of the law, the intent, behind which God stands, and out of which we are embraced as the beloved of God. It is in that place we are to strive to live. I do not think it is easy, but I know that such honesty, such intentionality in relationships, makes us closer to God and to each other, and prevents the kind of relationship abuse that Jesus so eschews in this gospel reading. 

And thankfully it is always trying to know the intent of the law that allows us the grace of humor, to laugh at ourselves and our need for rules and laws when indeed, love should make such things irrelevant. So smile. God loves you. Be all that the law intends for you to be. And when you cannot make it, forget poked-out eyes and gnawed-off limbs. Just dig into your heart and try again, for God really does love you, and that is enough. Amen.

Last Published: February 19, 2014 11:08 AM