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July 9, 2017

“Adultery, Dismemberment and Divorce”

Matthew 5:27-33


So I have started running again, to get myself back into hopefully decent shape. I am running mostly on the treadmill for now, trying to get my muscles into form so that once I hit the road and run I won’t get injured. The few times I have been out running in Ashland, sometimes I pass by a window and notice that I don’t run quite like I used to, and that is hard for me to see. For you see when I was in high school, I ran the mile and also competed in pole vault and high jump. I actually ran a 5.08 mile back in the day. I still have this idea that I can run like I used to, until I actually SEE myself running, or what could also be called- “possibly moving forward at a pace which is faster than walking…barely.” As I contemplated my 55 year old form and pace, it did bring back some memories from my days on the track team in high school.  I remembered running the mile with team mates, working on race strategies, trying to block out runners from other teams, and doing my best to learn the pole vault, using a stiff metal pole which DID NOT BEND, EVER. I remember in particular learning how to do the high jump, which I really enjoyed. It was an exercise in frustration for the first week or so. First we just worked on form, learning the Fosberry Flop, as it has been named, thanks to the great Olympic high jumper for the United States, Dick Fosberry, who I learned from my office administrator, Susan went to Medford High. After we got the form down, the coach put a bar across the pit at a low height. We would then run to the pit and try to jump over the bar. As soon as we got over that height a few times, he would raise the bar. That made things harder, but helped us improve. I think the highest I ever cleared was about 5”3, a decent mark at the time for a sophomore, and in doing so earned the nickname “college”. The coach said he named me that because he thought I would jump for a college someday. Alas, that did not happen.  I really enjoyed the challenge of high jump, and learned a lot about myself, my abilities and even my faith when the coach would raise the bar. When I would land right in the middle of the bar, or knock it off with my lead hand, the coach would say, “Don’t give up.  You are learning. Now try again.”


I share that story because I think Jesus, our ultimate Christian coach raises the bar for us with his statements from today’s passage in Matthew and his sermon on the mount. He takes a commandment and raises it up higher- makes it more complex, difficult, much like last week in his teaching on murder and anger.  Jesus’ statements today are even more challenging than the ones last week. It may take some time to be able to clear the bar here, and we may fail a few times, but we’ll learn a lot about ourselves, our abilities and our faith along the way.


So, let’s see how high we can jump. First, Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, do not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He then goes on to suggest we pluck our eye out if it causes us to sin, for it would be better to lose a body part than to end up in Gehenna once again. That was the smoldering garbage dump outside of Jerusalem we talked about last week, if you remember. Not a good place find ourselves in, by any means. The bar starts here with adultery, but is raised up to an even higher level.  


How do we apply this command today? This is yet another example of Jesus taking the application of a commandment back from the outward act itself. In Biblical times, to infringe upon this initial commandment was a death sentence. The penalty for adulterous affairs was being stoned to death. Here Jesus raises the bar-It is in the lustful glance and thought that the potential for adultery begins. It is there, Jesus says that the thought must be checked. Otherwise, that thought can grow, be fed by fantasy, and even acted upon, which means it breaks the commandment itself.


What about the sin of lust? Author Philip Yancy, in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, writes, “I have heard of calls for castration for serial rapists, but never have I heard a proposal for facial mutilation on account of lust. Indeed, lust in America is an established national pastime, celebrated in ads for blue jeans and beer, in the annual Sports Illustrated swim suit issue, and in the 20 million copies of pornographic magazines sold each month. When presidential candidate Jimmy Carter tried to explain this verse in a Playboy magazine interview, the press reacted with what John Updike described as ‘nervous hilarity.’ ‘How strangely on modern ears falls the notion that lust-sexual desire that wells up in us as involuntarily as saliva-in itself is wicked!’”


Lust is not only wicked- It can destroy so much. Consider the story of celebrity actress Eva Longoria and NBA basketball star Tony Parker. Parker, known as a long time playboy in the NBA, became attracted to the gorgeous starlet, and eventually they were wed in 2007. What began as a seemingly picture perfect marriage ended in disaster, due to lust. After three years of marriage, Longoria filed for divorce from Parker in 2010. Shortly after filing for divorce, Longoria revealed that she had discovered Parker had been sending hundreds of text messages to other women. It didn't take long for media outlets to learn that Parker had been having an affair with his former teammate Brent Barry’s wife, Erin Barry. The result of lust in this case- two marriages were destroyed.



Jesus takes the issue of lust seriously, perhaps too seriously? What about dismembering one’s face to keep away from lusting after another? Regarding the suggestion that one pluck one’s eye out if we look lustfully upon another- Here Jesus reminds us that the eyes are the windows of the soul, and our eyes and what we focus upon can lead us to sinful behavior. Consider the story of David and Bathsheba- David saw this beautiful woman taking a bath up on her roof, and knew he wanted her. He sent for her, even though he knew she was married and had sex with her, which produced a child who later died. In addition, David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered. These horrific sins all began with David’s stare, with his eyes.


Now although I do believe here that Jesus was being more figurative than literal in this case, in the 1520's there were some concerns by the established church after the publication and distribution of one of the first ever translations of the New Testament in the common tongue. When the William Tyndale English New Testament was printed, there was a strong attempt to restrict its circulation, primarily because the established church saw a real threat to the priesthood if the masses were suddenly able to read scripture upon their own. But a secondary concern was circulated as a cover story because of this passage- that a simple reader might mistakenly take such language and literally pluck out his eyes, which would mean the whole realm would be full of blind persons to the great decay of the nation and disregard for the King!  That of course did not happen. Jesus’ concern here is to watch what we watch. If we focus or linger too long, we may find ourselves in a real, wicked mess.



Next comes this statement, “It was also said, whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” In Mark and Luke’s version  of this saying (Mark 10:1-10; Luke 16:18)Jesus doesn’t even include the exception of unfaithfulness- Divorce followed by remarriage does not sound like an option for Jesus, and if it becomes one, he says it also leads to the possibility of adultery. What then does this mean for us, in a world when spouses are physically abusive, in a world where 50% of marriages end in divorce, and those statistics are no better inside the church than they are outside our doors? You have raised the bar pretty high here Jesus.


We need to understand the context of Jesus’ words here. He was speaking in part about Deuteronomy 24:1-4, in which a man could give a certificate of divorce to a woman for anything the man found to be “indecent.”  This of course was being abused, as some Rabbis interpreted “indecent” as having to do more than just with being unfaithful. “Indecent” could include poor housekeeping, poor cooking, not being pretty enough, or if the husband found someone else who was prettier. Also remember at the time, women were property and had no rights. Therefore, in the time of the Old Testament, men did not commit adultery against women; rather either a woman committed adultery against her husband, or the man committed adultery against another husband. So husbands were the only victims of adultery, because women were property. Here though, Jesus reverses this early teaching about adultery. “Any MAN who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against HER.”  In Jesus ‘teaching, a woman is not property, but rather is a person. And Jesus clearly states that a woman can be a victim of adultery.


But the core of this message is to not get divorced unless there is infidelity, and doing so and re marrying leads us back to the issue of adultery. What then can we say? How does this command apply to us today in a world where divorce is more common than not?


First, I must clarify that in an abusive relationship, if the behavior does not stop and counseling is not sought, then the one being abused has every right to step away from that relationship and protect themselves and any children involved. Abuse is indecent sinful behavior and there is no reason to remain in an abusive, unholy relationship. Jesus does not address that issue in these verses.


What about when you are in a bad marriage? Commitment within marriage is an important principle; peace, unity and love are important, too. If the unity and love are so lacking that the marriage threatens Christian peace and joy, does the principle of peace outweigh the principle of commitment? The marriage may in fact be an oppressive relationship that opposes God. This is a complicated issue to be sure.

When it comes to the issue of re marriage, I have performed a few of them in my ministry. I believe that God can bless a couple who come from divorced marriages. God says in Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And the apostle Paul seems to say that it is all right for a believing partner to leave their non-believing spouse and remarry, to uphold Christian peace. (1 Cor. 7:12-16). How then are we to take this passage?



In his commentary on Matthew, theologian Dale Brunner says, “The intention of these two simple but full sentences is to underline in a dramatic way that divorce is ordinarily harmful to the will of God, and that remarriage is also harmful...Jesus abhorred divorce and remarriage. Malachi 2:16 was also in Jesus’ Bible, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.” ..This command blazes with the holiness of the marriage union.


He goes on to say, however, that there is forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. “Blessed are the divorced who are deeply sorry; yes blessed are the divorced and remarried who acknowledge their sins, repent of them, and believe the gospel of full forgiveness of sin. Teaching Jesus’ divorce sayings is unpleasant work because it often hurts and puts down people who have been hurt and put down enough.” Amen.



Well sisters and brother in Christ, Jesus has challenged us once again today. Our marriage relationships are to be given highest regard, and we are to keep ourselves from following lustful desires. If we keep focused upon Christ and his coaching, in time our technique will improve. If we spend time just reading these three chapters over and over again, praying for help from Jesus and trying to live as Christ commanded, we will be able to clear higher and higher heights. And when we fail, we can know that Jesus helps us up in grace, and says, “Don’t give up. You are learning. Now try again.” May Jesus be with us as we seek to live as he lived, and to follow his commands. Alleluia. Amen.

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