February 26, 10:00 a.m.

Epiphany 6A 2-12-17                                                                             St. John’s Church

Rev’d Jennifer Phillips                                        Deut.30:15-20;1 Cor.3:1-9;Mtt.5:21-37

“But I say to you, each one who shakes an angry fist at his brother shall be liable to judgment, and whoever says “I spit on you!” to a brother will be liable to trial by the Sanhedrin (the Jews’ religious high council); and if you say “You moron! To someone,” you will be deserving of the Gehenna of fire.”

I suspect that today’s long passage from Matthew’s Gospel may have brought more misery and distress to Christians than almost any other part of the Bible.  It’s been used to prohibit divorcing and remarrying and cast those who do out of church and society. So horrifying is the injunction to rip your eye out or cut off your arm if they cause you to stumble, that it was forbidden to read that part of Scripture in the psychiatric hospital where I trained, for fear patients would take it literally…and some have. If you have a lustful thought about someone other than your spouse you are as bad as if you went to bed with them? – come on! That would be like trying to shove a camel through the eye of a needle! Laughable! If we took Jesus literally, not only would no one divorce, but there would be a lot of self-inflicted one-armed, one-eyed people walking around. Ridiculous! So what’s going on here? I am going to spend some time examining this text in detail, so we don’t just shudder, but become able to hear what is here.

Take the start of it at surface value. Assume Jesus is saying, if you so much as shout or swear at your sibling, you should be hauled up before the authorities. Do you imagine that the highest religious court of Jerusalem (or anywhere) would want someone taking up their time because they cussed out their sister? Or shouted in anger at their brother? The lines would be out the door!

And if you call the guy who cuts you off in traffic a moron, you deserve to be thrown onto the great burning garbage dump of Jerusalem (which was an actual place,) with the dead camels and trash to burn to a cinder? It isn’t “hell” Jesus is referring to – not as the Middle Ages and Danté pictured it with devils and pitchforks and brimstone lakes, nor the chilly Hades across the underground river Styx of Greco-Roman mythology – this is the East Boston landfill we are to be burned in. People to whom Jesus and Matthew spoke would mostly have seen the smoke rising from Gehenna night and day just over the horizon of Jerusalem. Because you got angry?! Jesus was exaggerating to a ridiculous degree to make a point. The point, we will come back to. This was a way of speaking that would have been familiar to first century audiences – setting up an extreme to get an audience stirred up enough to hear something else that is unpalatable. (It seems to have just come back into vogue.)

And now the divorce saying. Let’s take a quick waltz through the context: marriage and divorce in antiquity, since our ideas about it have had such impact in recent times. In the Roman world, a paterfamilias (head honcho) ruled his extended family utterly. The patriarch had life and death control over every member of his household from his son to the grandkids and slaves. If anyone was to marry, the paterfamilias must give permission – and usually he arranged it with the paterfamilias of another family. Women needed to be under the authority of a man – usually their own father or his father; the patriarch of her family, who would bear responsibility for keeping her in a pure marriageable state until she was contracted as chattel to a husband of his choice. The emperor was paterfamilias of everyone in his empire – the buck stopped with him. His word was divine fiat. Emperor (Caesar) Augustus (reigning around the year 18), thought it was a good thing for everyone to be married, seeing single people as social loose cannons. If your spouse died or divorced you, you had six months to marry again, or you were in legal trouble and socially shunned. Judaism also traditionally thought all men should marry and produce children for the maintaining of the people Israel and as a social good, divinely sanctioned. Romans could divorce one another, both men and women, simply by uttering the words, “I divorce you” (even if the spouse wasn’t in the room), and putting their stuff on the curb. (Imagine that nowadays!) A woman could divorce her husband – but woe to the woman whose patriarch did not approve – since she would be dependent on him to take her in, if she was to maintain any social reputation. Else she would end up on the streets or worse.

There is not a lot of evidence of just how first century Jews in Palestine went about marriage and divorce. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel is used as a primary source by Jewish scholars, and only recently have some ancient manuscripts been found with tiny bits of information. We deduce that in ancient tribal Judaism, polygamy was the norm in a patriarchal system. Somewhere between that era and the first century it has been assumed that monogamous marriage became the rule. Yet Herod, the Jewish governor running Palestine under Rome, had nine wives. Polygamy was practiced among Sephardic Jews - think Spain and North Africa – into the early modern era, rather like Islam in the same regions. Ashkenazy Jews who settled in Europe practiced monogamous marriage. Since it seems there was a written marriage contract for much of this history, there was also a possibility of contractual divorce, and it would have needed a bit more religious formality than Roman divorce. It seems to have been available for Jewish men to initiate, but not women, looking at this passage. But it seems that generally marriage customs have adapted a lot to the culture of different places, so likely in a Roman world, Jewish marriage and divorce was sliding into a more roman pattern and it may have been that that Jesus was critiquing.

Jesus was not saying a man couldn’t divorce a woman caught in the act of adultery. In Roman society, adultery was sex that a married person had with the spouse of another person who was of similar social standing. Sex with prostitutes or slaves didn’t count. Sex with unmarried but eligible women resulted in speedy marriage, or the payment of a big fine to her paterfamilias. A husband could kill an adulterous wife but only catching the trespassing couple in the act and killing both of them right there with no delay. Apparently that didn’t happen often. There is biblical evidence, and cultural evidence outside Judaism, that couples taken in adultery might be stoned to death by their religious communities – as still happens in Islam in some areas.

So all this is to say that we can’t argue strongly that Jesus was reforming a generally corrupt practice of marriage and divorce in Judaism in his day; we can only speculate that he seems to have thought that divorce had become too casual and Roman-style for religious men, with bad consequences for Jewish community life. We deduce that Jesus didn’t believe adulterers should be stoned – since everyone sins in one way or (“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”) Religious communities always walk a line of discernment between the customs of the prevailing culture and their sense of what is good and right for the community of faith. Jesus is not proposing absolutes about this, but is appealing for a more merciful and just and faithful way of conducting relationships.

This whole passage needs to be heard together, and along with the rest of the Gospel. Like any rabbi, Jesus is “setting a fence around the law”. In order to insure that observant Jews didn’t break a major commandment, rabbis would urge them to avoid even the opportunity to sin. An example: Torah says don’t boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk, seen as inhumane. The rabbis then said, don’t eat meat and milk together, where they mix in the digestive system. And then to avid that danger, extrapolated, have separate dishes for milk and meat meals. Aiming for a higher bar, they would then be far less likely to fall headlong over the low but essential bar. So we hear Jesus, like those other rabbis, using the formula: “You have heard it said of old…but I say to you now…”. That is, better be safe than sorry. But the net result of the argument shows that fulfilling the whole spirit of the law and never sinning even inwardly, in thought and intention, should be the aim of a righteous person. Yet perfection is patently impossible. No one could or does manage this. And so everyone is, finally, reliant on grace and mercy and divine forgiveness and the chance to amend life. Matthew wants his audience to be clear, this all points to Christ – the one through whom believers can be set right with God despite sins large and small. The law is not worthless or cast out, but fulfilled – made doable in a new way, and not just for Jews. Diet, hot temper, verbal abuse, divorce – all seen differently.

We hear about hacked off limbs and lusting in our heart, and are meant to throw up our hands in despair and ironic laughter at ever being perfect enough to keep the commandments, let alone to deserve entry into the reign of God. And then we are supposed to hear the good news. Today’s passage leads on a bit later to: ‘love not only your neighbor but even your enemy and persecutor if you would be children of heaven. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Be perfect as God is perfect’ yes, aim high, higher and higher; forgive others so that you may be forgiven too. But then let go of your anxiety about imperfect performance and live into God’s love that I, Jesus, am making available to you in a new way. When you don’t get over the bar of righteousness and you fall, you will find mercy insofar as you have done mercy, because you are beloved children of a heavenly merciful Paterfamilias, receiving grace upon grace.

So if you are divorced, or remarried, breathe. If you have been lusting in your heart, breathe. If you swear at your relatives, and passing motorists, breathe. God’s reign asks righteousness of you, yes; but first and foremost you are loved and forgiven, and only knowing that can any of us start to act like it.



WEEKLY SCHEDULE                          

Office Hours:  
Tuesday 9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Thursday 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Friday 9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

Wednesday: Holy Eucharist 10:00 a.m. 
Sunday: 10:00 a.m.

This is St. John's Episcopal Church...

This is St. John's Episcopal Church, Westwood MA

Want to check on the readings for a particular Sunday or other day?  Click below to go to the Lectionary page...  all readings available for 2016:

Rev. Dr. Jennifer M. Phillips

Tuesday, February 21:
7:00 p.m. Bible Study

Wednesday, February, 22:
10:00 a.m. Eucharist 

Sunday, February 26:
10:00 a.m.

Looking ahead:
Tuesday, February 28:
7:00 pm.: Bible Study, followed by Night Prayers

Ash Wednesday, March 1:
Noon: Ash Wednesday service 
3:30 - 5:00 p.m. Ashes to Go at the 128 Train Station 

7:00 p.m. Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at First Parish Church, Clapbordtree St.10:00 a.m. Eucharist

Saturday, March 4:
8:00 - 11:30 a.m. : M.S. Youth to Grace Norwood Food Pantry

Monday, March 13:
3:45 - 7:30 p.m. St. John's Oasis supper at Church on the Hill, Boston. Helpers especially needed on this date!

Saturday, April 1, 2017:
9:00 a.m. -12:00 p.m.
Spiritual resilience and resistance in a time of climate change retreat
Trinity Church in the City of Boston, Copley Square 

Retreat leader: The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Ph.D

for more information and to register see the link below



 Flowers enhance the beauty of our church and greatly contribute to our worship.  We place flowers near the altar to remind us of Creation, which brings us to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we celebrate every Sunday.  Here at St. John’s, rather than have a general budget item for flowers, we invite our parishioners to provide the flowers in memory or honor of loved ones, or in thanksgiving for special events.  There is a sign up sheet on the bulletin board  on which one may select a Sunday, (or Sundays!), for a special tribute.  The cost for flowers, which the Altar Guild orders, is $35. (Please be sure to note on your payment that it is for flowers.)  We are grateful to  Westwood Gardens Florist, which, for many years, has provided beautiful arrangements to us for a modest price.