Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jesus Still Takes Marriage Seriously, Matt. 5:27-37

It’s appropriate that we’ve reached this point in the Sermon on the Mount on Mother’s Day. Marriage is under attack in our world today. There are numerous attempts to redefine marriage. Over 50% of marriages fail. Increasing numbers of couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage either because they think marriage doesn’t mean anything or because they fear divorce. Children are growing up today who have never known a father. Their mothers have long disassociated themselves from the man who impregnated them long before the child is aware that such a person existed. Some mothers don’t even know who fathered their children. No man ever enters the picture of many children’s lives as a father figure. 59% of you have been divorced. The divorce rate among churchgoers is no different than that of society at large. In 100% of marriages I’ve conducted at least one, and most often both parties have been divorced. All except for one couple that I’ve married cohabitated before marriage, and at least one person and most often both people of all the couples I’ve married have claimed to be believers in Christ. In fact, that is necessary for me even to perform a wedding per our Book of Order. These are not good statistics, and yet marriage still matters to Jesus.
Our passage today reveals to us once again that Jesus’ “Great Moral Teaching” only exposes how miserably we fail to live up to it. Jesus starts with expanding # 7 of the 10 Commandments—“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Jesus again expands the prohibition to include lustful thoughts. Like murder, adultery begins in the heart. And like murder, adultery carries with it a death penalty. Jesus is showing us that the wages of sin is indeed death. Adultery implies that at least one of the parties is already married. Jesus will end this section talking about keeping vows. Adultery breaks the marriage vows. Jesus warns us to do what we need to do to in order to keep from sinning in this way. Jesus warns us against wanting was is not lawful for us to have.
Jesus moves from adultery to divorce because they are so closely tied together. Jesus names adultery or infidelity as the only legitimate reason for divorce. God can be no more blunt than saying, “I hate divorce,” which God does in the book of Malachi among other places. According to Jewish law, only a man could initiate a divorce—women could not. But Jesus will allow the woman to initiate a divorce in cases of infidelity. In this teaching in Matthew, Jesus wants us to understand that our sins don’t only affect us, but have much wider consequences. We are so selfish that we think our sin only affects us. But Jesus says that when a man divorces his wife, he’s forcing her to sin. Women did not live independently in Bible times like they do today. They either lived with their parents, or other male relative—like Mary and Martha with their brother Lazarus, or with their sons, or with a husband. The only options for widows to live independently were if they were older widows with no children (widows indeed) who were to be provided for by the community or if they were prostitutes. There was a provision in the law for the nearest male relative of the dead husband to marry a young widow, so that she would be taken care of. This is what we read about in the book of Ruth as well as in Genesis with Tamar. Because a woman had to remarry if she was divorced, Jesus is saying that in cases of divorce that are not recognized by God, the husband who is choosing to violate God’s command is causing others—his ex-wife and her future husband to live in sin. Jesus says this not to criticize the woman and her future husband as much as to make us understand how serious divorce is and that it has far reaching consequences. He does it so that we will rethink our decision and not choose divorce. He reminds us that divorce itself is sin.
In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas reminds us that we don’t have any leeway when it comes to our responsibility to keep our vows. We are not responsible for the other person’s behavior, but we are responsible for our own choices and attitudes. It’s important that the couples with which I work, that those from broken prior marriages be able to articulate their mistakes without justification, regardless of what the ex-spouse did. It’s important because if you can admit you were wrong then you can also choose not to do that wrong thing next time. You can act and react differently. I’m working with a couple now. One of the spouses was badly hurt in a previous marriage, but that spouse also chose to engage in very inappropriate behavior. I knew that behavior needed to be expressed. The person was able to admit that wrong without my prompting, which allowed me to ask the follow up question, “So what can you do to avoid this situation in the future?” The new couple is now able to develop a plan of action and set appropriate boundaries so that the new marriage has greater potential of being their last marriage. Admitting our fault also means that we can be forgiven. Remember that Jesus not only forgives our sins but also redeems us.
Jesus concludes this section by talking about vows. He is referring to any vows, not just marriage vows. He isn’t saying here, “Don’t make vows,” because He will allow Himself to be put under a vow later. But Jesus is saying, “Don’t make vows with conditions attached.” The Jewish teaching was that only vows made in God’s name were binding; otherwise, you could wiggle out of them. Jesus says, it’s stupid to swear by anything because God owns everything and controls everything. Therefore, all vows are binding. Instead, mean what you say. To be anything other than honest is to be under the influence of the evil one. If you have to put in excuses or conditions, you show that you are untrusting and not trustworthy. The marriage vows we take are intended to encompass any condition—sickness and in health, better or for worse, richer or poorer, til death do us part—so that there isn’t wiggle room to get out of our promise to be faithful to another person.
There is a disturbing story in the book of Judges about a judge named Jepthath. Page for page, Judges has more gore and disturbing stories than any other book in the Bible. This judge Jepthath, who is praised as a mighty warrior, makes a vow to the Lord to offer as a burnt offering whatever comes out of his house if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites. Jepthath is victorious. And it is his beloved daughter who comes to greet him. Jepthath, as grieved as he is over the vow he made, will not break it, and Jepthath’s daughter accepts it. After having a two month good-bye party and time of mourning with her girl friends, she submits to being a sacrifice. Unlike Abraham with Isaac, God does not intervene and send a ram, because God never asked Jepthath to sacrifice his daughter. In Judges the stories are presented without commentary. The story ends. And yet in Hebrews 11 Jepthath is mentioned as a man of faith. Yes, he did keep his vow, but it was a stupid vow. Why is he called a man of faith? I don’t think it has anything to do with what Jepthath did. It’s all about how God sees Jepthath. God sees only the faith. And when it comes to us, God doesn’t see our mess-ups. God only sees Jesus when we repent. God doesn’t see how badly we’ve failed to keep our vows or how foolishly we have made them. God sees the faith of Christ in us.
The youth group is currently going through an abstinence curriculum by Lakita Garth Wright called “The Naked Truth.” In her book by the same name, Lakita has a chapter dealing with the modern notion that marriage is “piece of paper.” Here’s what she has to say...(I read pg. 154 and part of 155 from Lakita Garth's book, The Naked Truth." It is also proven that cohabitating before marriage does not reduce the potential for divorce later. All of the couples I’ve married realized at some point that marriage is more than just a piece of paper, that it is indeed different than the cohabitating life they have previously lived. They are all able to define what marriage means to them and how it is different. The words “life-long commitment” always come up. They know that cohabitating means a temporary commitment—that I can have an easy out if I want it. It’s proven that married couples feel more secure and more fulfilled in their relationships than cohabitating couples. Each of the couples I’ve married have also realized that there is a spiritual dimension to marriage, and that the spiritual dimension is important to them.
I listened to a Bible Study this week where the Talmud describes the cherubim on top of the mercy seat as symbolizing an embrace—that their wings reaching out to each other with God dwelling in the midst of them reminds us of what our relationship with God and each other as the body of Christ is like. We are to remember that marriage is also a symbol of that relationship. It mirrors what our relationship to God is like. God desires oneness with us. Marriage is important to Jesus because it symbolizes His relationship to the Church.
The more I study the Catholic teaching on marriage, the more I agree with it. Regardless of what the world does, exclusive of civil rights, spiritual marriage is different. It is already defined and cannot be changed because of its representative nature. We also must remember that in the Kingdom of God, we have no rights. Everything is privilege and gift except the right to become the children of God.
Once again, we are all condemned by Jesus’ teaching. This passage leaves none of us innocent. Once again we can be so grateful that Jesus has fulfilled the Law for us. We break our promises and vows so easily. We deserve death, but Jesus gives us life. God remarries us and remains faithful to us when we go astray. Jesus re-presents us as His spotless bride. He changes us from sinners to saints. He redeems our whole lives, including our marriages, so that they too may be holy. And He empowers us with the Holy Spirit so that we can be faithful and obedient to Him.


Blogger Pastor Parato said...

I'm going to have to use sticky notes to remind myself to record!

May 8, 2011 at 7:11 PM


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