Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Falsehood of the Matthean Exception

If I get to Wednesday without writing on Sunday's lessons, I know it has been and will continue to be a tough week. And, when I look at Matthew 5:21-37 and read Jesus equate anger with murder and lust with adultery and, likewise, divorce with adultery, I realize I'm going to need more time than I have to fully digest this lesson. Today, however, the gospel reading in the Daily Office (Mark 10:1-16) is another version of Jesus' teaching on divorce, so, even though I don't think that will be my focus in Sunday's sermon, I can't help but start there.

Jesus says that anyone who divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman commits adultery. We don't like that, but it's what he says. And, if you use the Episcopal Church's policy that permits remarriage after divorce as the basis for your assessment, it would be hard to conclude that we care about what he says. But there's always more to it than that.

In Mark's gospel account, Jesus gives this teaching during a confrontation with the Pharisees. They approach him and ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" That they even asked him about it suggests that the religious teaching on divorce was either unclear or in flux. They were trying to trap him, Mark tells us, so we can conclude either that Jesus was thought to have offered some challenging or questionable teaching on the subject and they wanted to get him on the record for teaching something controversial OR that the Pharisees themselves understood there to be a dispute among the religious and political leaders of the day and that pinning Jesus down one way or another would get him into trouble. Jesus responds as he often responds--by asking them what they think is right. They quote the Law of Moses, which allows a certificate of divorce to be written, and Jesus responds by upping the ante: "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you...Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Full stop. That's it. Nothing else. No wiggle room. No loopholes. No nothing.

Matthew's version is different. In his account, Jesus offers his teaching on divorce during the ethical portion of his Sermon on the Mount. He's on a roll and continues to offer observations on the traditions of the faith and his reinterpretation of those traditions: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times...But I say to you..." Jesus introduces the concept of adultery in classical terms, quoting the Decalogue, but then he equates lusting after a woman in one's heart with committing the act. (The film Eyes Wide Shut is, among other things, an exploration of this concept worth seeing if you can handle the strong sexual imagery throughout the film.) I'm sure that everyone, including Jimmy Carter, winced a little bit when they heard this teaching on lust, but Jesus wasn't finished. He moved on to divorce, giving it similar treatment: "But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Did you see it? Did you hear it? That's the "Matthean Exception"--the little phrase upon which traditionalist Christians have been basing their discipline on the remarriage of unfaithful divorcees for centuries. Except on the ground of unchastity. In other words, despite what Mark might recall, remarriage after divorce is NOT adulterous as long as adulterous behavior had preceded the divorce. But did Jesus say it? Did he mean it? Did he say it when Matthew was listening but not when Mark was paying attention? Where does this difference come from, and what does it mean to us?

I believe that the people who heard Jesus' teaching on divorce were just as uncomfortable with its implications as twenty-first-century Christians who see advertisements on television for cheap legal representation during a divorce. We might think that the world is a more immoral place than it was in Jesus' day, but I think the moral spectrum has simply shifted in some areas. We're just as sinful, just as judgmental, and just as hypocritical as we've ever been. So I think that when the followers of Jesus heard his teaching on divorce they reinterpreted it--in their minds, in their recollections, in their sermons, in their letters, and in their to-become-biblical texts--until we got the exception. I don't believe Jesus meant for there to be an exception, but I also think that worrying about one misses the point.

On Sunday, I plan to use our aversion to Jesus' teaching on divorce to reveal a deeper problem--that we care more about what he says about divorce than what he says about lust, anger, insults, swearing, and sin more generally. Whether focusing on Matthew or Mark, divorce is just a tiny slice of his ethical teaching. Jesus calls us to recognize the totality of our sin. Like John the Baptizer, he calls us to repent. He begs us to return to the Lord and live a life worthy of the daughters and sons of God that he declares us to be. Divorce? Yes, that's a problem. But so is everything else. This sermon and our reaction to it highlight that fact. Don't get lost in the Matthean exception or Mark's exclusion of it. Go deeper and see the sin that infects our lives and let the blood of Jesus wash it from you.

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