I give thanks for the research and enlightenment of the Right Rev. Michael Rinehart of the ECLA Church. Much of his exegesis and some of his words are contained in this sermon. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hellfire and Damnation! You are going to burn – I Am Going to BURN!! If you’ve thought it in your mind or heart – you may as well have done it, because you are certainly going to get the punishment as though you had! Who hasn’t been angry with someone? Haven’t we all? Have you been divorced and are now remarried – or living with someone outside the vows of marriage?? It’s hellfire for you! It’s hellfire for me! Oh, NO!!!
How often have we heard these messages? From Dante’s “Inferno” through Milton’s “Paradise Lost” on up through our Puritan history to screaming televangelists today, what we hear leads us to look at these verses of Jesus and quake – shaking in our shoes that we really are in a world of hurt and there is no way to work our way out of the deep sin in which we find ourselves? Oh…My…God! What can I do? I find myself in a wonderful and decent marriage, but Jesus appears to call this one adulterous, because I’ve been married before! What shall I do?
Well, I think I can tell you what we all need to do, and that is: take a deep breath and calm down. Fundamentalist preachers have interpreted these words of Jesus for hundreds of years in a completely different way than most theologians read them, whether those theologians were from the ancient world like St. Augustine, and Luther, or modern theologians. People who read the Bible literally, without considering the circumstances in which they were said, can completely misunderstand Jesus’ meanings.
In this particular scenario, we are hearing a portion in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’ve been reading it in order for the last three weeks. But suddenly, after the words about Salt and Light we heard last week, come these hard words. So different and so harsh from what has gone before. I think it is very important that we understand what Jesus was doing here.
When people hear “hellfire,” they take it quite literally. Jesus may have meant it literally, but I suspect not. Translated from the Greek, this phrase reads: “into the Gehenna of fire,” which refers to the dump south of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. I don’t want to negate the image of judgment here. Jesus certainly means to say that there is a Judgment Day coming, in which things are going to be sorted out, good and bad. Bad stuff will be burned like trash. But, we have to hear this as literary hyperbole. Here’s why: In just a few verses, Jesus will instruct his listeners to tear out their eyes if they are a cause of sin. I presume he didn’t mean this literally, as there’s no evidence that Jesus’ disciples mutilated themselves. St. Augustine assumes that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. These shocking images work. They ring in people’s ears two thousand years later. He’s using a powerful homiletic tool, preaching tool, to make his point.
So what is the point? Relationships are important: more important than vengeance, more important than retaliation. We can do violence with our words. When we do, mending those relationships is more important than going to church, or making our offerings. Asking others for forgiveness is as important as seeking God’s.
About the statement on anger, Martin Luther explained it this way: We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray, slander, or hurt our neighbor’s reputation, but defend, speak well of our neighbor, and explain everything in the kindest way.
About Lust, I’ve got a quote that may shock you, but it made me stop and think: our beloved C. S. Lewis said the following: “He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.” What Jesus is really saying is, he is very interested in the heart. What you think matters: your motives matter. Transformation of behavior alone won’t do. Actually, it won’t work. The only hope is transformation of the heart, from which all actions flow.
I suppose even if we are entirely chaste, our lusting will work its way out in other ways, resulting in: anger? Resentment? Unhealthy relationships? Fear of intimacy? Selfishness? I’ve always felt that lust and covetousness came from the same source. It’s the desire for more, more, more, no matter how much I have. It is, at the heart of things, self-centeredness. God will have to deal with this in us, if we are to become spiritually alive.
And now, to Divorce: Consider this. A man could “put away” a woman by simply writing down a note. “I divorce her.” The Bible was used to justify this practice. The woman had very few options. There was a huge power differential. Jesus is upholding the sanctity of marriage. The goal is faithfulness. And fairness.
The Hebrew Bible’s laws about divorce are draconian and patriarchal. They are about men’s rights to divorce women, not women’s rights to divorce men. By and large, they assume women as a possession of men, traded for shekels like cattle. Women have few rights in this system. Consider this passage from Deut. 22: If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. So, if a man rapes a woman, his punishment is paying the father 50 shekels and marrying the woman. She is forced to marry her rapist. She cannot seek a certificate of divorce, and neither can he. One can only wonder about the marital dynamics in such an arrangement.
It seems to me that Jesus, by criticizing divorce, is making it more egalitarian. The woman couldn’t divorce anyway. Jesus is leveling the playing field. And he creates a loophole: “except on the grounds of unchastity.” And it’s quite a loophole. What qualifies? I can imagine physical or emotional abuse as being unchaste. There’s wiggle room here, just not, “the man said so.” Jesus is not a fan of divorce, or broken relationships of any kind. It’s tragic really. But even he leaves a loophole. There is grace here.
The following three statements on oath taking – only saying “yes” or “no”; going the extra mile rather than retaliating, and loving our enemies, are also points of grace. Without discussing them in detail, what Jesus is doing is calling his followers to a higher standard than the law given by Moses. He is saying that our behavior in adhering to the law does not bring life. Those who are peacemakers, full of mercy and hungry for justice will see beyond the letter of the law to its deep inner yearning for purity of heart and a world of justice. They will exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. Righteousness is not obedience to legislation, but perfect conformity to the will of God. The end product is that we are to be: children of our heavenly Father: righteous and merciful.
These words we’ve always heard as harsh and scary, are really words of love. Jesus calls all of us to respond in love to every situation, hurtful and hard as those situations might be. He is calling on us to be sacrificial with our thoughts, words, actions and feelings. He is telling us that we can change our hearts to hearts of non-judgmental love. Until our lives overflow with caring more and doing more for others than for ourselves, we’ve missed the boat on what it means to live the Christian life.
It is time to move into the next level. To move beyond our worship in this place, to moving out into the world, showing people we do not know and who don’t know us, what living in Christ’s love truly means to the world. It’s time to get our priorities in order: to go out and live the love we’ve been given. Amen.