Rules, rules, rules. All the readings today are about following God’s commandments, and the general message of them is, if we follow God’s rules and God’s will, we are choosing life. If we break commandments, we will die as a result of God’s righteous judgment.
And then Jesus makes our life even more difficult in this Gospel passage from Matthew because now he seems to be changing the rules. In fact, he sounds like he is making it harder to follow the commandments. No matter what the rule, he is asking for an even closer cleaving to God’s will and intention in these rules about murder, divorce, adultery, and so on. We thought the Ten Commandments said not to murder? Now Jesus interprets it more broadly: we have to avoid anger. We thought divorce was acceptable in some circumstances in Mosaic Law? Now Jesus seems to interprets it more restrictively.
There is a repeated theme in these readings about making choices. Our fate seems to be squarely in our hands. At the same time, there is a sense that the right answer proceeds from God’s wisdom. Somehow, we need to know God’s wisdom to choose the right answer and to live. And a misstep can lead to death of some sort.
As I was pondering these passages a few days ago and what they say about our making wise choices, I received a phone call from someone who has attended our church a few times. She is struggling with an ethical dilemma. She wanted to know the Scriptural basis for one of the prophetic stances our church takes on social issues. So I discussed the Scriptural basis at some length, even giving her specific passages to consider. She thanked me for allowing her to ask questions and to disagree with me. Then she said, “I know that I need to make up my own mind. I just find it very helpful to talk to people who have a different idea about what is sinful.”
I was so impressed by her willingness to share that she differed with me on an ethical issue and to ask for my point of view. I was also impressed by her spiritual struggle. She took her individual responsibility to make the right ethical choice very seriously. She wants to know God’s mind.
After the telephone conversation, I asked myself, “Why DO I feel sure about this? Why is my conscience sure about my decision? How have I made my decision?”
I did assure the caller that we only can do the best that we can do when making ethical decisions, and I cannot believe that God would be angered by our attempts to be faithful and ethical in our lives. In other words, can we really make evil choices when we are actively, authentically seeking God’s wisdom in the important decisions of our lives?
The passage from the Gospel of Matthew can sound very harsh to those of us who have been through divorce, for example. I myself was divorced many years ago, and I know that this Biblical passage used to trouble me. When I was a young married woman, my marriage was an unhappy one from the beginning. And yet I was a devout, practicing Catholic, and I just did not consider divorce a moral possibility. Also, I loved my husband and wanted our marriage to work, and we made several attempts at marriage counseling. My husband was agnostic and did not have the same ethical concerns I had. The birth of our daughter made me extremely happy, but sent him into a psychological crisis of desperate proportions. So we went back to counseling. I also saw the therapist individually, and one day she asked me point blank, “Why are you holding onto this marriage?” She knew I was Catholic, and she was a former nun.
I was too embarrassed to tell her my reason. There was a rule in my head. So she prodded me and asked me, “Is it because of your religious beliefs?”
So I finally said, “Yes. I took a vow before God and the whole church that I would stay married until death do us part.” I was completely bound up in this rule in my head and was afraid of offending God and my family.
She asked me one question: “Do you think God wants you to be miserable?”
And without hesitating, I said, “No.” Just like that.
She said, “I’m going to pray for you this week, Janine.” That’s all. The next day, I asked my husband, “Do you want a divorce?” He said yes and walked away without another word.
As strange as it might seem to people who have never been in a bad marriage, my husband and I both chose life that day. Neither of us had ever been willfully unkind to the other, and yet we were miserable together. By setting each other free, we were able to choose new lives for ourselves and our daughter. And yet, this choice, which I believe to be in alignment with God’s will for our lives, to thrive and to love and be loved, seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ interpretation of the rules about divorce.
What I love about this seemingly harsh passage in Matthew is that it shows Jesus reinterpreting the Scriptures for the ethical dilemmas of his own time. In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, he repeatedly says, “You have heard it said in ancient times…. But I say to you now…..” He’s rewriting the rules to respond to the social problems of his time. And of course, he is doing it with the absolute moral conviction that he knows the mind of God because he is completely at one with God. In my theology, he is God and speaks for God.
And that’s where things get tricky for us, because we can’t know completely the mind of God. So how do we make life-giving choices? The reading from Ecclesiasticus seems to imply that we need God’s wisdom to make the right choices. Where do we find God’s wisdom in our time? How can we approach the ethical dilemmas of our times with the same conviction that Jesus did in his time? And how can we be sure?
Classic theologians like the Swiss theologian Karl Barth from the 20th century will tell you that God is revealed in several different ways. First, God is revealed completely in Jesus Christ, who is God fully manifested in history in human form. Therefore, to see the wisdom of God, we need only to heed the Word, the Wisdom of God. Jesus himself. Easier said than done sometimes! As we have seen in the accounts of the disciples, Jesus was hard to figure out sometimes. Also, to heed Jesus is to imitate him. And what he demonstrates in this Gospel passage today is the need to reinterpret moral laws in our time. Just as he did in his own time.
Karl Barth also says that God is revealed in Holy Scriptures, but in a mediated way. That is, there is some mediation between the mind of God and the recording of Biblical texts, and there is also some mediation, interpretation, etc. between the texts and their readers and all the experiences those readers bring to their interpretations. Just the fact that the Bible has been translated many different ways in different languages makes clear that we are not looking directly into the mind of God through the Scriptures. Like Jesus, we have to reinterpret. Like Jesus, we have to discern.
In addition, Barth considers the church, especially the preaching in the church, to be another source that points to the mind of God. This notion depends to a certain extent on the denomination. For example, part of the rule in my head many years ago about divorce came from the teachings of the Catholic Church, which are based both on the Bible and on considerable deliberation in theological councils of unmarried men over the centuries. In other denominations, the “teaching” function comes from the individual pastors and preachers. They can also come from the councils of church members, people who gather to make decisions about ethical and governance issues, much as our vestry does.
Barth and other theologians are quick to say that the church makes mistakes. For example, he was part of the Confessing Church movement that opposed Nazism and the persecution of Jews and called upon the churches that were colluding with the Nazis to stop supporting evil. He had a very direct and visceral experience of a church supporting evil.
For most of us, the ethical decisions have more to do with our personal lives, and the tougher the problem, the more difficult it is to discern what is best on our own. We get confused. We get befuddled. We get stuck on a rule we have in our head.
For me, making a choice for life involved one question from a former nun: “Do you think God wants you to be miserable?”
At that point, the spiritual lie in my head became so clear. I had somehow come to believe that, no matter how miserable my marriage, it was my moral responsibility to hold on, and I would suffer some horrible consequence if I did accept divorce. And yet, when I actually examined the theological underpinnings of my beliefs, I discovered that I didn’t really believe two things: I did not believe that God wishes us to suffer emotionally, nor did I believe in an angry God who was going to deliver some kind of everlasting death unto us if we break a rule. I do believe in a God who wishes us to thrive emotionally and spiritually and gives us some clues on how to do this. And I absolutely, positively believe in a God who forgives us for the missteps in our lives and showers us with grace through the loving mercies of others.
In Ecclesiasticus, we are urged to choose life. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus urges us to choose life, too. He is basically saying, ‘Don’t make life hell for yourself or others. Be simple and direct, loving and forgiving in all of your dealings.’ Sometimes, choosing life means reinterpreting rules we’ve been given to follow, or forgiving ourselves and the others around us for failures in relationships. Choosing life means working to discern God’s wisdom when we are faced with ethical dilemmas brought about by changes in society.
And sometimes choosing life means choosing to rewrite the scripts that foster evil in our society. The racism that continues to prompt the shooting of black teenagers and young black men in this country is an evil that tears our society apart, case after case. To shoot and kill a black teenager like Jordan Davis for playing loud music is to choose death. Death not only for Jordan Davis, but spiritual death for his grieving family, for the shooter, for the shooter’s family, and for all of us. It’s a slow death for those of us who are not literally targets in this society. None of us can truly thrive in the eyes of God if our country continues to value black boys and black bodies less than white bodies. At times like this in our society, we have wandered far astray from the wisdom and guidance of God.
It is important to note another source for discerning God’s wisdom in our lives: the counsel of others. When the caller wanted help with her ethical dilemma, she called the church and asked to speak to someone. When my marriage was in dire straits, I consulted a therapist who turned out to be more of a spiritual adviser.
I have read a number of accounts of the lives of women mystics in the Church, and a fascinating thread runs through all their lives. Leaders of the Church such as popes, archbishops and bishops consulted these women about serious matters of church and state. Catherine of Siena wrote scathing letters to the pope during a lengthy papal crisis, helping to broker the end of the Avignon papacy. St. Hilda of Whitby was consulted by kings and princes, and they held an important church conclave at her abbey due to her skills at diplomacy. Julian of Norwich was a solitary who provided spiritual counsel to people through a small window onto the street.
And in our own time and location, Harriet Tubman chose life. When she planned an escape from slavery, her husband faltered and stayed behind, and she went on without him. She fled to freedom with a few family members, and then she returned to guide other family members and others to safety. She chose life not only for herself, but for countless other people on the Underground Railroad. She led them to freedom.
I provide all of these examples to make this point: often, the source of God’s wisdom in our lives is the other people in our lives. When we don’t know whether a choice we’re making is life-giving or harmful to ourselves or others, we can find answers in the people around us. Like these mystics, like Harriet Tubman, and like my marriage therapist, they can shine a light into the darkness and conflicts of our lives. They can illuminate the spiritual lies that have caught us in a web of pain, and they show us the way to freedom and love and a fuller life. They are the wellsprings of life, the fountains in the occasional deserts and droughts of our lives.