What many people don’t realise is that when Jesus taught, in the tough way he does in the Gospel today, (Matt 5:17-37) he was not, as some people think, imposing more rules and regulations on us poor humans. This is best explained by looking at what he says about divorce. The point is that he lived in a society where men thought that it was perfectly Ok to treat their wife just like a piece of property that they could get rid of – just chuck her away if they weren’t satisfied with her. All the man had to do was to write out what was then called “a writ of dismissal”, which was just a few written words saying “I divorce you”, and that was that. And even worse, a woman could be handed on from man to man, as if she was a parcel of goods, rather than a human being. Women couldn’t do this of course. They had no rights at all, unless they came from rich and powerful families!
So when Jesus teaches that this should not happen, when he teaches that this kind of divorce is wrong, he’s actually affirming what we Christians now take for granted, that marriage between a man and a woman is an equal partnership, that both the the woman and the man are meant to give themselves to each other, and care for one another in a very special way. Indeed, in another place, (Matt 19:3-9) Jesus says about men, that when a man marries he must ‘leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” In other words, people must not think that they can pick up a sexual partner for a bit, and then discard them. No. They must realise that to marry is to enter into a new and special relationship, a partnership that is what God intended for us humans from when we first came into existence.
It is in this context that Jesus says that adultery is wrong. Now we must be careful here. Just because Jesus says something is wrong, does not mean that he is going to condemn people who for one reason or another, fail to keep their first marriage going. His compassion for such people is shown in two passages in the Bible. In one famous one, (John 8:1-11) he refuses to condemn a woman accused of adultery whom people want to stone to death. Note that it was the woman whom they wanted to stone, the man involved was obviously being allowed to get away with it. In another passage (John 4:1-26) Jesus talks for a long time to a woman at a well. He is all alone with her, which at that time in that culture, was not a respectable thing to do; especially when we discover that he knows that she has been married five times and is now living with a man without marrying him. The fascinating thing is that there is no condemnation here, only a desire to share with her what he calls “the water of eternal life.”
Sadly sometimes the desire of the Church to stress the teaching of Jesus on how special marriage is, has made those whose marriages fail feel condemned and rejected, and that’s surely not what Jesus intended. In order to show this, let’s look for a minute at other parts of today’s Gospel ; for as well as saying divorce is wrong, Jesus also says that being angry is wrong, that any kind of swearing is wrong, and that looking at another person (man or woman) as an object of sexual desire (as in pornography) is also wrong.
In all these cases, Jesus is setting up an incredibly high standard, not to make us feel guilty, but to get at those of his day who thought that they were OK. That is why he ends this passage (which we will hear in next week’s Gospel) by saying “Be perfect..” but not in the way they think is perfect, but… and here is the challenge to them “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This is the point that’s at the heart of the Gospel, that God loves us even when we fail, that he knows that we can never be as perfect as he is. I was talking to a Mum the other day who was asking how God could love us humans when we so often go wrong, and I said, “Do you stop loving your children when they do something wrong? And of course we both knew the answer. Good parents are just not like that. And that’s why Jesus introduces a revolutionary idea for his time, that we should call God “Father”. Yes, God is like a loving parent, sad when we fail to be all we could be as human beings. God is always loving us and pointing us on into the future, so let’s all do that shall we, by responding to God’s love, rather than feeling guilty about the past? Thinking of ourselves or others as no good is not the way of the Christian. We are called to be the children of God, and that means there is always a future into which we must grow.