It’s taken me since February to come to this place and yet even now I hesitate and spend time wandering around these verses. I remember deciding last year to begin my exploration in Matthew instead of John, which had been my favorite book in the former years, but I started with Matthew because I didn’t want to begin with the strong theological course I remember John taking. Alas, I knew eventually I’d have to face these verses.
The Lord is expanding the prohibition against adultery and removing a “loop-hole” of the difference between thinking about doing it versus doing it. By these verses the two are the same. This is an incredibly high standard that, quite frankly, I’ve been completely ignoring for the past 15-years. In all honesty, these were among the verses that I struggled with for years, continually asking God for forgiveness for being such a lustful teenager, more or less compromised my way through my college years, lived a confused and unsatisfied married existence and plumb gave up on this standard when the marriage went south.
What I had a problem with is the apparent dichotomy or adversarial relationship depicted between Jesus’ standard and our bodies’ desires. By this literal standard there should be a lot of us walking about missing eyes and handless. It’s difficult for me to look at human nature and hold to this standard. I don’t know, it is a fine line between admiring and acknowledge the beauty around us and flat out “wanting it” in a carnal way. But I have a hard time setting up my nature, my drive to physically be in union with another, and simply identifying that as evil, worthy of being literally cut from my existence and life. And having gone from merely admiring to actively “partaking” I stand guilty as charged.
Actually, one thing that I take from these first four verses (beyond the blatant prohibition) is not necessarily the cutting off of various body parts but the vision that we do not have to be merely subject to the whims of our physical nature. For me, that is, in fact the point. It isn’t the evilness of our physical existence. It’s the removal of our social cloak of holding the law but breaking the law and the charge that our bodies are meant to serve us and not the other way around.
One of the things that I believe, or have come to believe is that a way “around” some of these prior difficulties in not the “I am evil” approach, but recognizing the god-given intent of these drives and endeavoring to live as a whole person. There is a reason for this and the extreme is this dismemberment but the idea, I believe, is that we shouldn’t have to take it that far. There is a grace that is stronger than that. That is my hope, at least.
Then we come to the admonition against divorce. It almost comes down to, there’s the way things are “supposed to be” and the way things seem to turn out. The blunt force of the verse is impossible to ignore, but in fact, it goes much deeper than a simple prohibition to divorce. Something I hadn’t previously noticed, something that seems to be all the more real to me, it’s the sense or role of community in these verses, including the last admonitions about anger. This is not solely about personal piety but about the role and effects we have within community. In fact, given that refocus this isn’t just about divorce, but juxtaposes the “ease” of divorce (all one needed was to say “I divorce you” three times in a public gathering from my memory of Islamic tradition), to looking at the result of what happens when one severs a marital relationship. In my way of thinking this isn’t a verse entirely about divorce, but about the man facing the responsibility of sending his wife away. At a time when women had virtually no civil-rights the prohibition can be seen against the man’s “right” to simply dispose of his wife.
As I’ve told someone before, divorce is the emergency glass one breaks when the building is aflame. I do not doubt the miraculous capacity of God’s grace, but it still seems to come down to two and when there’s only one pulling the marriage forward it would seem to no longer really be a marriage. In a sense, I guess the one thing that we can agree on is that both marriage and divorce need to be approached with the same caution, seriousness and deliberation. One does not merely throw away ones spouse.
Interesting that the writer would have Jesus follow up his comments about divorce with a slam against the use of oaths entirely. What then is the point of swearing with an oath when one cannot in fact “pay off” the oath should things not go as one promised? Instead of building a fortress of promises, one simply must keep to what one agrees to. Actions speak louder than words, basically. And again, this isn’t entirely about ones own actions but the net result of ones words and actions within the community. Say it as simply as possible and simply do it. No oath can secure the outcome of a deed never intended to be done. There is value and strength to our words, so we have to be careful and straight forward when communicating our intents. JBB 05.11.2003
Music: Same Changes – Sam Phillips – Martinis & Bikinis