The Sermon on the Mount gets started…
And it’s with the Beatitudes that Jesus lays the foundation for Christian living. In a series of short statements (not commands) he sets out the way that the world really is – even when it seems to be exactly the opposite.
In the long run (and it may be the real long run, longer than a lifetime) then the meek do inherit the earth, the poor in spirit end up on top and those who mourn do find comfort. And it’s only because the world really is that way that everything to come in the next few chapters makes sense.
The Beatitudes aren’t a set of commands (to be meek, peacemakers, seek after justice etc.) though those are good things to set as our aim. They are affirmations of reality, foundations for Christian living.
And that living is not easy. In one situation after another, Jesus sets out how the righteousness of the citizens of the kingdom of God is to be greater than the most meticulous of the scribes and the pharisees. Because it’s not about the details of behaviour but the direction of the heart, lived out in our behaviour.
In the middle of this is one verse that I know I need to think about carefully – verse 32. One of the questions I began this whole plan of reading with was to look at what the Bible says about remarriage after divorce. I’ve always taken a strict line on this, and don’t marry people after divorce, even when my heart tells me that its pastorally and humanly the right thing for them. This verse seems so clear that I find it hard to get around.
But I begin to think that in context it may be hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. I don’t think that Jesus had any literal intent of his followers pulling out eyes and cutting off hands to resist temptation. Surely he meant us simply to realise the gravity of sin and the overriding importance of holiness. So we should consider giving in wilfully to temptation to be something which disfigures and maims us, not a trivial thing to be washed away ritually and forgotten.
If that’s the case, then might it not be that in equating marriage after divorce to adultery, Jesus was using hyperbole to make a vital point? Many Jewish leaders in his time seem to have seen divorce as a normal part of relationships, at the disposal of a husband (but not a wife) when his marriage no longer suited him. Jesus calls us, then, to recognise the gravity of breaking the commitment of marriage. In that case, is this verse about the wrongness of remarriage, or about the wrongness of divorce in the first place? If it’s the latter, then I know that there are times when divorce is the lesser of two wrongs, but never to be seen as part of the ‘normal’ course of things.
I know that I want to change my position on this issue. We held a wedding fayre today, and among those I talked with, there’s one wonderful couple who are church members, and where one is long-divorced. I prepared him for confirmation, know them both, and know in my heart that it’s right for them to be married. It’s precisely because I so want to change my view that I’m reluctant to do so until I’m sure that I’m not cutting corners on following a clear bit of Scripture.
I don’t think I’m going to start suggesting self-harm to my congregation as an answer to temptation, though – so am I being inconsistent?
I really wish I knew.