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KEEPING THE COMMANDMENTS 1 Cor 3:1-9 Matt 5:21-37

You might have heard this joke about the 10 Commandments. Moses comes down from the mountain and talks to the leaders: "Well, I've got good news and bad news." "What's the good news?" "I got him down to Ten!" "That's great! What's the bad news?" "Adultery is still in there." There must be thousands of jokes about marriage, divorce and adultery. We joke about those things that are most crucial to us as humans. Hearing the verses from Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel reading may make us feel very challenged. We may, after pondering some time, end up with either of two extreme reactions to this teaching: either, on the one hand totally conscience-stricken and feeling a failure, or, on the other hand, feeling that it’s so impossibly idealistic there’s no point in even trying.

A Question of Interpretation
Both of those responses are ones in which we already begin to interpret the Scriptures, though it may not seem like an interpretation on the face of it. We think our responses are to the plain meaning of the words. I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as “the plain meaning of the words” but that any and every understanding of the words is an interpretation. To feel a failure or to reject what we’ve heard are both interpretations of a similar kind: I understand that the demands of God are impossible to keep, to be unreasonable. So I end up believing that God is impossible to please. This makes me take two further paths through life. Either I accept God cannot be pleased and live with a never-ending bad conscience, a sort of moral inferiority complex. Or, I reject God’s unreasonableness and decide to go my own way. You can quickly see that neither of those routes lead to a happy life of faith. They are both unreasonable interpretations of Scripture.

So what would a reasonable interpretation look like? If all responses to Scripture are an interpretation, are there interpretations that lead to happier lives of faith? How can we combine faithfulness to God and his word with a sense of reason? If we can’t believe in the plain sense of the words, don’t we run the risk of making the Scriptures simply say what we’d like them to? Are we dodging what God wants of us? How do we, as St Paul puts it to the Corinthians, grow up from a milk diet for baby Christians, into mature
believers who are nourished by solid food?
Scripture, reason and tradition
One of the things I believe Anglicanism has given to the wider Church is a method or a way of working out the answers to our questions about how to live a faithful Christian life. Around the time this church at Willen was built, Anglicanism was beginning to settle into having a distinct identity of its own. Into particular ways of thinking and behaving. The Bishop and theologian Richard Hooker taught that we are to respond to Scripture with both reason and tradition. Scripture, reason and tradition are often pictured as the three legs of a milking stool. You need all three to hold you up. That’s not strictly accurate: Scripture is the ultimate authority for a Christian. But we use reason to help us understand it and we refer to tradition to temper our reason with its wisdom. In other words, we have God-given intelligence so that we can read and try to work out the meaning of Scripture. But because we know we are fallible and especially vulnerable to what is fashionable in our own time, we also look to the reason, experience and decisions of our forebears in the faith to help guide us. All of this, of course, is also to be done in the power of the Spirit. There’s no point in reinventing moral wheels, so it helps to draw on what Christians in the past decided about how to live faithfully. But because life moves on and new challenges and dilemmas are always going to come out way, we also have to use our reason to work out responses to those new challenges. An example is medical science. In former times things like blood transfusions, fertility treatment or gender re-assignment were all either impossible or not even thought of. We can’t expect the Bible to lay down clear rules about any of those things, nor can we necessarily find any direct wisdom in tradition. But with our reason we can try and trace where the authority of the Scripture challenges our human sinfulness. With our reason we can, as it were, enter into a conversation with our forebears and ask what they might have thought about similar problems. In other words, again taking Paul’s picture, we seek to be adult about our relationship with God. We struggle with and work out what seems reasonable to us, under the guidance of the Spirit. We make decisions together as God’s faithful people, always open to the possibility that we might be mistaken, but at the same time recognising that moral dilemmas are never black or white, but shades of grey. We have to find the best way through the moral maze with Scripture as our guiding star.

Jesus’ methods
I believe we can see that in the way Jesus taught. “You have heard that it was said…” he starts off, “but I say to you.” He was able to do that because of his peculiar authority as the Son of God. But it does set a pattern. Actually, Jesus wasn’t weakening the authority of the traditions he was referring to, he was going back to what those traditions were based on, going back to their roots. To put it another way: Jesus was a true radical. He went back to the origin of those particular laws he was highlighting and reminded his hearers what those laws were really about. When he said “you have heard that it was said”, he was referring to the Jewish traditions of the elders. These were ways in which scholars of the laws of Moses had developed their various interpretations of them. But Jesus saw, in dialogue with these traditions, that they could sometimes have come a long way adrift of the original intention of God for his people. As he said, “I’ve not come to abolish the law or prophets but to fulfil them.” So, for instance, consider the prohibition against murder. It seems plain enough. But, Jesus reminds his hearers what all that is about. Its not just about literally not killing someone else unlawfully, but it’s also about what leads to that act of murder in the first place. Perhaps he had Cain and Abel in mind: the first act of murder came from the jealousy of one brother over another. Murder is the end-product of lives that are full of broken relationships, unreconciled families, friends or communities. It’s more important to be at peace with each other than to say your prayers or go to church.

So why is adultery still in?
The other example Jesus uses is that of our closest and most intimate relationships. In Jesus’ day the status of women was extremely low. They were the property of their fathers when growing up and their husbands when married. All that was needed for divorce was a piece of paper, as it were: a certificate. Something in writing to say that the husband had divorced his wife. That left her destitute and because of the stigma, unlikely to be able to marry again. Possibly the only way for her to make a living if she wasn’t a woman of some independent means, would be prostitution. So for a man to divorce a wife was, Jesus insisted, far too easy and the end result was to create even more unhappiness and immorality than in the first place. Like murder, divorce begins in a person’s attitudes. Just as unresolved and unreconciled anger can lead to murder, so also wanting someone else in unchecked ways can lead to broken promises.
It was as if Jesus was appealing to his hearers: “can’t you see that a literal keeping of the law can leave a great deal to be desired?” Keeping to the bare minimum, the apparently plain meaning of the text, can lead to missing the whole point that God originally had in mind.

What about murder and adultery?
So by now you might be wanting to ask me, what about murder and adultery? What should be our interpretation of these biblical morals? It will be less likely that there are murderers in our fellowship than those who have been married more than once! So perhaps the former is less thorny than the latter. With murder, of course, there are different degrees and varying reasons why the taking of life may be, in exceptional circumstances, not a sin or a crime. Death by accident or the just war may be examples of “lawful” killing. But what about divorce? In this parish we do re-marry divorcees. Are we doing the right thing? Along with most other reasonable Christians in the modern world, we agree that marriage and the means to a living are very different now than in the ancient world when Jesus lived on earth. Divorce is now carefully regulated by law to ensure that there is fairness. One of the things our laws ensure are that people who were dependent on each other during their marriage have some means of living after it has ended. In the Church we hold two things in balance concerning divorce and marriage. On the one hand we believe that marriage is sacred and meant for life. But on the other hand we recognise and accept that some marriages do end because a relationship has irretrievably broken down. We also believe in a fresh start: that God forgives the truly penitent and sets us back on our feet again. This applies not just to our individual relationship with God but in all our relationships. Faithfulness is precious and to be protected in different ways, but once it has been broken it cannot be mended. There is no point in perpetuating someone’s unhappiness in a marriage that no longer works, is no longer alive. It is better to make the break and allow for a new life, but to do so in careful and responsible ways. All of this leads to grown-up, reasonable and honest ways of living. As Jesus said in conclusion: Let your yes be a real yes and your no an honest no. As Moses found in dealing with God: there is room for working things out, for negotiating. But there is also the challenge from God to stay within certain boundaries. We are to seek the guidance of the Spirit to be sensitive to when we might be straying too far outside those boundaries and the wisdom to find our way within them.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.