Love is not Hostile, Love is in Marriage and Love is in Truth.
A sermon based on Matthew 5:21-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 16, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As you might imagine I hear a lot of Bible humor in my vocation. Many of the jokes are about misunderstandings, and puns are often at play. I recently came across some new-to-me Bible punning riddles and lucky for all of us I just happened to bring them with me. Due to all the groaning last week, I whittled it down to only three:
Did Eve ever have a date with Adam? No, just an apple.
Where was Solomon’s temple located? On the side of his head.
Who was the smartest man in the Bible? Abraham. He knew a Lot. 1
The word-confusion in those riddles is intended to be fun. In my experience the Bible, though, actually does create a lot of confusion for us all on it’s own. I’d venture to guess most of us have found that so at one time or another. We might be afraid to admit it, because we think we should be able to read the Bible and easily understand it, but the truth is its words and stories can be hard to comprehend– which may be why the Bible is the best selling book in history, but surveys show Bible owners rarely read all or even a good portion of it.
Part of the problem these days is that the Bible is misunderstood because as Professor Timothy Beal at Case Western puts it, it’s become an “iconic ideal . . . the answer book to all of life’s problems.” 2. I think Prof. Beal is right, consumers buy Bibles expecting answers all easily laid out, but then when they open it up the reality of the confusing texts from an ancient book formed over a period of a thousand years in an ancient culture over two thousand years ago hits.
I mean just that description I just gave can cause our eyes glaze over. See the time line of the Bible alone is complicated to understand. One of the creation stories in Genesis may go back as far as 900 BC. 3 Yet the Old Testament itself was not completed until about 100 AD. 4. And the first time all the books of the New Testament are listed as having special status together is not until 367 AD. 5
Lots of writers contributed to the books in the Bible over lots of time in a land very far away in a culture quite foreign to us. So rationally speaking it should not be a surprise that the contents are not always easy to understand.
I Like to think of the Bible as more like a series of long classic poems, rather than a quick reference book on how to live.
Many Bible users, Christians and atheists alike approach the text as something to just go in and try to comprehend from the words they select to read. It can be intimidating and frustrating when we find out that doesn’t work for us, that our experience is in-depth understanding of much of the texts can elude instant understanding and have layers of meanings.
Approaching the Bible as a quick reference book ignores the deep meaning of the experiences of God that the authors struggled mightily to put into their own words, it ignores the cultural context of the text and it belies the multiple meanings one can fairly glean from the poetry and the poetic-like images found throughout the Bible.
Although all Christians agree that God at the end of the day is mostly beyond our words, lots of us have trouble appreciating that the only way to describe that which is beyond our words is with poetry and metaphor. In our every day life we accept that the experience of love cannot be justly described by literal descriptions, so we sing and write and read about what love is like, we use metaphors. Well, God is love, right?So it makes sense to consider the Bible as akin to a poem about love, one that took dozens of authors a thousand years to construct in cultures and times and languages unknown to us. When we think of the Bible like that, it is no wonder that we can’t just open to every page and expect to instantly understand what’s there or glean answers to life. It takes study, reflection and prayer and openness.
Seeing the Bible as poetry-like speaks to the richness of the writing and it’s deep meaning in our quest for comprehending parts of God and how to live well and right. Answers are in the Bible, but mostly they’re not there like we’d find in an ordinary reference book. It is not Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica!
The word “Bible” means “books,” and it is a remarkable collection of books reporting wonderful stories and ideas from a number of men over a great deal of time in different eras and cultures.
Although we sometimes seem to have this idea that God wrote the Bible, sealed it in a baggie and dropped it from the sky for humans to find, clearly that’s not what happened. The words of the Bible were recorded and then transmitted by generations of humans, often first orally and then later by writings. Often those who recorded the original books of the Bible had no first hand knowledge of the events that they recorded. For example the Gospels were penned four or more decades after the first Easter. Four decades is a lot, especially back then with no with no mass media and a mostly illiterate population. Four decades though can’t beat the creation stories, which were obviously written well after the world began. And that’s just the original putting of the stories down in writing. Since paper is fragile there’s not one extant original page of the Bible. We only have hand copies of hand copies far removed in time from the original.
And so far I am only talking about the copies in the original languages– Hebrew and Greek with some Aramaic. When the words get translated, the translators are even further removed in time and have even less knowledge of what it was like in the Bible’s times, making the job of turning foreign words and concepts into understandable English very difficult.
Because of the different meanings of words in other languages and foreign contexts often we cannot just pick up a Bible and understand what it means by applying our general understanding to the words. This works sometimes, but not always.
Brian turned me onto a great book called The Rise and Fall of the Bible by Timothy Beal the professor I quoted earlier. Dr. Beal observes that there isn’t just one version of the Bible, but over six-thousand versions with thirty-five different (English) translations. 6.
Steve just read a text from a popular Bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version and although it reads in straight forward English terms I’d venture to guess some, or a lot of it, is hard for us to comprehend what it might mean for us today.
So let’s examine it and see if we can find experiences of God or lessons for good living that we can apply to our lives from the text. The text records a number of statements by Jesus a peasant Jewish rabbi in Roman occupied First Century context. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so we have Aramaic statements made around 30 AD, written in Greek probably around 80 AD, and passed along by hand written copies for centuries and then translated from Greek to modern American English.
And we heard in plain American English, Jesus appears to have claimed that those who are angry will be judged, those who insult will be liable and that those who even say “You fool” are liable to the hell fire. We also heard Jesus apparently condemn adultery, divorce and remarriage as adultery and lust as adultery.Then in the last part of the text Jesus appears to disapprove of swearing an oath (“I swear to tell the whole truth” kinda stuff.”)
Glancing at the American English translation of the words of Jesus sure seem to literally say angry, insulting people go to hell, divorced remarried people and lustful people are adulterers, and we should not swear to the truth of matters in court or on paper. That’s what it sounds like first blush.
We’ve all seen angry and insulting Christians, especially in the media. We know a lot of good people who have been divorced and remarried. Most of us have probably sworn to the truth of a matter in court or in an affidavit. I doubt in the past twenty years any of us have heard a televangelist try and enforce this text in public. They seem to be our nation’s self appointed Bible enforcers, but these words of Jesus certainly don’t get the press we hear others get these days. All of this begs the question, Does any of today’s text apply to anyone? Or better yet, to put it theologically, can this text speak to us of experiences of God or how to relate to God and God in others?
“Hermeneutic” is fancy-schmancy theological speak for what method or principle we apply to interpretation of Bible texts. Since Jesus claimed that the greatest commandment is love, since the Bible claims that God is love, progressive Christians often interpret the Bible by filtering verses through love. That is, we ask: How can we fairly read this lovingly? Does it speak about love? Can it be heard and applied as love-centered? Where can love – God– be found in the text?
To help answer those questions we consider the context the verse was reported to have been said in, and the context we now live in. Basically to put it all in UCC language, we ask: How is God still speaking in these verses?
The Way that Jesus created is about how we relate to God in creation, in ourselves, in one another and in the mystery of life. The first part of today’s reading – even on it’s surface– seems to be about relationship, about good relationship with others, actually the whole text is about relationship.In both ancient and present contexts the first part is about keeping our anger from leading us to hostility, not only do we not murder others as the 10 Commandments require, we also keep our anger from leading to our insulting others, and our not reconciling with them.
The reading can fairly be heard to mean that angry actions do not lead to love, they lead away from it. I think most of us in this room can hear how this fits in our context. No one wants to have another angry at them or insulting them– no one in Jesus’ day wanted that either. So if we follow this teaching we are doing to others as we would have them do to us and we are acting out love. So sure, Jesus’ teaching in the text about anger can be understood to have meaning for us. The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary sums these verses up with the title “Love Shows No Hostility.” 7. I like that. Wouldn’t it be great if Christians took that to heart? What a difference it would make even if just clergy avoided being hostile.
The next part of the reading about divorce and remarriage being adulterous strikes us as a lot harder to apply. We want to ignore it. Most of us agree that divorce is a valid decision when the relationship is irreconcilable. While we are saddened by divorce we allow it and nowadays; most of us do not stigmatize the divorced and certainly not remarriage. Marriage and divorce and remarriage were very different things in Jesus’ day. A wife was the husband’s property. Only men could divorce and they could do so with little care. Ex-wives and children could end up on the street, poor, beggars or prostitutes or dead. 8 A woman had few rights in marriage. Even affairs by her husband did not violate her rights. Jesus can be heard to even things up in the text. The word “lust” in Greek is “epitumeo” and it might better be translated here as covet which means to yearn to possess.
Jesus can be heard to make it impermissible for men to covet anothers wife(which is also in the 10 Commandments) and he makes it impermissible to willy-nilly get a divorce to toss wives aside like property. So we can fairly read this part of scripture as intended to protect women and children from being hurt or discarded by patriarchal laws of Jesus’ time. It’s about men relating to their wives in a much more compassionate manner. While divorce in our day is not like the divorce Jesus was addressing, and so the prohibition need not apply, the principals of compassion and non-coveting and non-cheating on spouses and fair treatment of women sure ought to. Love and fairness in marital relations is at the center of this teaching, that’s important– always. 9
In the last part of the text about swearing, Jesus takes another of the 10 Commandments, the one to not swear falsely, and stretches it to claim we shouldn’t have to swear to truth at all. Jesus can be heard to be teaching us to always tell the truth. If we always tell the truth then we ought not to have to swear something is true when we say it. There should not be levels of trustworthiness to our speech. The Feasting on the Word commentary put is like this
Insofar as the followers of Jesus are living out a higher righteousness that is evidenced by truthfulness, there is no need for oaths. This does not mean that oaths are never used, but that truth telling is its own validation. 10
Telling the truth was a good thing in Jesus’ day and age. It’s a good thing in this day and age. “Love is truthful” as the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary puts it. 11.
Given all I’ve just said considering the context of today’s reading in Jesus time, and the context we now live in, can we fairly read the whole of today’s text as loving? Does it speak about love? Can it be heard and applied as love-centered? Is God still speaking in these verses? I get the answer: “You bet!” Despite its age God can be found dynamically vibrating in the nooks and crannies of the verses calling us to love. Not being hostile was important to Jesus, and led – and still leads– to more love. Fairness and compassionate treatment of spouses in marriage was important to Jesus, and led–and still leads– to more love. Love by truth telling was important to Jesus, and led– and still leads- to more love.
And more love is always more God, because God is love! Right?
The Bible is a great and Sacred text that we take very seriously, but need not take literally. We can understand it like poetry with much meaning and deep, deep truth. Although it sometimes takes work to understand scripture, God’s always there in the nooks and crannies call us toward love, which is always GOD! . . . RIGHT?
2. Beal, Timothy, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, p. 46
3. Borg, Marcus, Evolution of the Word, p 63.
4. Ibid., 29.
6. Beal at 22, 49, 59
7. The New Interpreters Bible, Vol VIII, p 189
8. Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992),
9. The New Interpreters Bible, Vol VIII, p 191
10. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1, p 360
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