Saturday, 11 February 2017

Rules of Extremism

This sermon was preached at the Sunday morning service on 12th February 2017. The Gospel that morning was Matthew 5:21-27.

So… who’s up for a good, old-fashioned sermon on the evils of adultery and divorce this morning?

Jesse Custer, from the Vertigo comic series, Preacher

Me neither, to be honest.

But… the reading from Matthew’s Gospel is what is allocated for us today as part of our Church’s lectionary, so we’d best get cracking, I suppose!


<nervous silence>

I joke, of course. But… today’s Gospel reading is not an easy one, especially not for those of us who like to inhabit the space on the liberal end of the theological spectrum. I like my Jesus to be a religious rule-breaker, non-judgemental and concerned about social justice. I like him to be the man we see in Mark chapter 2, who rebukes the Pharisees when they complain about his work in breaking heads of corn to eat on the Sabbath day; the man who we see in John chapter 8, who famously tells the crowd that anyone amongst them who had never sinned was welcome to be the first to start stoning the woman caught in adultery; the man, even, who later in the gospel we heard this morning, got so angry with those merchants in the temple, selling the means to gain forgiveness, that he threw their tables over and chased them out of the House of God.

But the man we heard from today seems quite different to that, doesn’t he?

He sounds like – dare I say it – one of those religious fundamentalists. And he sounds – if I may say so – a bit extreme.

Our gospel reading this morning is part of that great sermon Christ gave (or perhaps, in reality, a series of sermons) – the Sermon on the Mount. We all know the beginning of it – it starts off with the Beatitudes (‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, ‘blessed are those who mourn’, ‘blessed are the cheese-makers’. Umm – that last one might be Monty Python now that I think about it). But, anyway, it’s such a famous passage, many of us know it off by heart.  We know it, and we like it. It’s good stuff; comforting.

After that, we get another famous passage – we heard it last Sunday morning – the piece about being salt and light to the world – again, it’s great stuff – very memorable, and inspiring. 
 And then, the tone changes.

Christ seems to have spotted that people were making assumptions about him; viewing his arguments with the scribes and Pharisees as him arguing that the law was an ass, and could be disregarded.

Not so, Christ says. God’s law is not to be done away with. God’s law is eternal.

And then, we come to our reading today, and Christ proceeds to make that eternal law harder. Ouch.

Don’t murder? Christ says, “Don’t even get angry with someone.”

Don’t commit adultery? Christ says, “Don’t even think about it.”

Don’t call someone a fool, or an idiot, says Christ. You’ll be in danger of hell.

And if you do sin? Christ says, “Cut off the part of your body that made you do it, and throw it away. Better that than sin and be in danger of hell.”

There’s obviously some level of hyperbole here. Jesus can’t mean us to really pluck out our own eyes, or cut off our own hands, can he? He can’t mean we really put our very soul in jeopardy merely by calling someone a fool. Can he?

It’s a difficult passage. It’s extreme.

How do we square this Christ with the one I talked of earlier, who himself got angry, who broke religious rules, who wiped the slate of the adulterous woman clean?

I’ve got a thought about this. It’s this:

Everything we heard in our gospel today is about people. Even down to the reference about oaths. I think this can help us to understand this passage.

When you look at it, it becomes obvious. Rules about divorce, adultery and anger – these are people-driven. These are rules about not taking people for granted, about not using each other, about respecting everyone around us as people and individuals.

The seemingly judgemental rule about divorce needs to be seen in the context of power, and treating women (and this rule is about how society treats women) more fairly; treating them as people. A married woman in the time of Christ was the property of her husband. A divorced woman was discarded goods. She could not earn her own keep, could not support herself, and would not be taken in by any respectable man. To become a divorced woman was to become a nobody. In seeking to make a man divorcing his wife less socially acceptable, Christ was taking the side of the powerless. This rule is not about ensuring two people of equal power stay together whatever, even if that is in a state of mutual unhappiness; it is about protecting the weak and vulnerable, about seeing a woman as a person in her own right, and not the property of her husband. It’s absolutely consistent with the Jesus who told a group of religious men to strongly consider their own sin before they took up stones and condemned a female victim of society to death (quite possibly for an act one of them also took part in...).

And from there, we come onto the rule about adultery. Not just about not committing adultery, but about not even contemplating it; not thinking about people who aren’t your partner in that way, not letting your mind wander or your thoughts run away. But why? What harm is there in a thought or a fantasy? How on earth can that be as bad as the act itself? I wonder whether this rule is, in fact, about people again. Whether this is about not seeing people as a way to satisfy our own wants and needs, as means to an end, but seeing them instead as children of God, made in the image of God; recognising that people are unique, and important, and that those people around us do not exist to serve us and meet our own desires, but as important, worthwhile holy beings in their own right.

We’ve got the rule about not swearing oaths, too. It seems a piece of legalism, a rule with no identifiable purpose. Why does it matter if we swear an oath rather than simply being held to our word? Why does the Christ who didn’t care about doing work on the Sabbath as long as it was beneficial to humanity care about such an obscure thing as swearing an oath? I think there’s something in this rule about our relationship with other people, just as we found in the other rules. If you are someone who is always truthful with others, then what need is there for an oath? And if you swear an oath, what does that tell other people about your attitude to truthfulness in your relationships with them when you don’t swear an oath? Someone who is trusted, who respects the people around them needs no oath to hold them to their word. And someone who does need that oath is one who holds little respect for other people.

And so we come to the first rule – about murder, and anger. This is obviously about our relationship with others; it can be about nothing else. Interestingly, however, emphasis is placed on both parties here – the one who is angry, and the one who has caused anger. Christ draws a parallel between anger and murder, and tells those who are angry with others that they are, just as a murderer would be, liable to judgement. I am sure we are supposed to call to mind Christ’s later famous warning to ‘judge not lest we are judged’. But Christ also tells those who have caused anger in others that it is their responsibility to ‘come to terms quickly with their accuser’. Responsibility lies with both accused – to forgive – and accuser – to seek forgiveness. People must be seen for who they are, and not for how they have wronged us.

I think the key line for Christ’s sermon – and my sermon too – is found here in this section. It’s one of the most extreme pieces. Christ says, if you say to your brother or sister, “you fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 

It’s harsh. It’s shocking. I have lost count of the number of times I have dismissed people (mainly politicians, if I am honest) as idiots or fools. Not just in my life, but in the past week. The current political climate almost demands it.

But here is the crux. I have dismissed them. In calling them fools and idiots (and worse, I must be honest), I have written them off. I have not recognised them as people, as children of God, as my brothers and sisters in the family of humankind, but as people I can ignore and turn my back upon. And when I do that to my family – for we are all family – I surely do endanger my soul. When I do that to my fellow humankind, I lose some of my own humanity.

When I write someone off as a fool, or an idiot, as someone whom I can ignore; when I dismiss people as Brexitiers or Remoaners, as the liberal elite or as the ignorant masses, when I can turn my back on a whole section of humanity because they are the wrong class, or they are drug-addicts, or refugees, or Muslims, I make people into labels and I lose my human-compassion for them. I do make myself liable to the figurative fires of hell, and I go against the very nature of Christ.

So, whilst I believe in a liberal Christianity, and am wary of fundamentalism and extremism, I must recognise that here, in his sermon, Christ shows us that there is at least one thing that he did hold extreme beliefs about – the intrinsic value of each and every one of us, as individuals crafted and loved by a creator. And I must ensure – for the sake of my own humanity – that I do not write off any of my brothers and sisters in creation. For I know that Christ has not, would not, and will not ever write me, or any of us off. Now, that’s an extremism I can get into.


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