Epiphany 6a Sermon
First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, Chicago, Winter Chapel
Rev. Tom Gaulke
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8 (1); 1 Corinthians 3:1-9;
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The ninth and tenth commandments,
according to the way Lutherans have traditionally counted the 10 commandments,
the ninth one
says: You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
And the tenth one
says: You shall not covet your neighbor's wife,
or his manserveant,
or his maidserveant,
or his cattle,
or anything that is your neighbor's.
Reflected in these commandments,
(the last two commandments of the Decalogue)
(That's the fancy name for the 10 Commandments)
as recorded in the books of
Exodus (20) and Deuteronomy (5),
is the cultural reality of both:
and the time of Christ.
That reality being that
(in that time and in those places)
a man's wife
was to be counted among
a man's property,
along with his slaves,
and his oxen,
and his house.
to be one's property.
Among the Laws and instructions,
in the book of Deuteronomy,
are instructions about what a man should have done
if a man had decided
wanted to initiate a divorce.
if he wanted to split up
if he wanted to dis-own his property,
and send her back on the matrimonial marketplace...
"Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a woman,
but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her,
and so he writes her a certificate of divorce,
puts it in her hand,
and sends her out of his house..."
Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a woman,
but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her...
By the time this phrase
(this piece of scripture)
reached the 1st century AD, it was being interpreted in a number of ways:
According to first century Israelite teacher, Rabbi Hillel,
a near contemporary of Jesus,
that a man, according to religious Law,
(according to religious Law)
should be allowed to divorce his wife
for something as small as "burning the dinner."
This is straight from 1st century Rabbinic commentary, folks.
According to Rabbi Akiba,
another near contemporary of Christ,
a man should be allowed,
according to the interpretation of the phrase
to divorce his wife
"not being as beautiful as another woman."
(Isn't this a great scripture for Valentine's Day?)
And so it happened,
God-fearing, family-value loving, Law abiding men,
(the religious elite and the Pharisees counted among them),
by the popular religion of their day,
to trade in their wives for a newer model,
if their wives, in their eyes,
had lost some of their luster.
The husband had simply to write a certificate,
and "send her out of his house."
The problem was
that being "sent out of the house,"
as "damaged goods"
in a society where women had little or no means of providing for themselves,
to begin with,
just sending one's spouse out of the house.
It wasn't "just a divorce."
It was putting one's spouse—one's wife—into a potentially deadly situation.
Forcing her into the fringes of society,
into a life of poverty, and scarcity, and insecurity.
By divorcing one's wife,
by trading up, or trading in,
a man was, in effect, throwing his old wife out.
Leaving her for dead.
Tossing her into the city dump.
Jerusalem's city dump
in Jesus' time,
was to the south of Jerusalem, outside the city,
in the valley of Hinnom,
a place, apparently, which had originally been used by the Canaanites
as a holy site,
a sacred site where they would offer child sacrifices to their gods.
[*post sermon note/correction*: apparently this is debated by scholars, as the accusation of child sacrifice may be interpreted as ancient anti-Canaanite propaganda. Consult member Matt Holmes for further details on this scholarly debate. He brought it to my attention. Child sacrifice is argued as historically accurate in the Sacra Pagina Commentary on Matthew.]
If you've ever lived near a dump,
(I grew up right up the street from one)
you know that garbage produces methane,
and if you don't somehow burn off that methane,
with controlled torches,
it will eventually potentially explode and catch lots of stuff on fire.
That's exactly what would happen
at the filled-in-valley dump to the south of Jerusalem.
Child sacrifices piled at the bottom,
garbage piled on top,
smoldering and flames and occasional explosions woven throughout.
The name of that dump, to the south of Jerusalem,
(in the Greek that the the New Testament is written in),
That's the word our English translation of the Bible,
translates as: Hell.
It is better to cut off and throw away one of your body parts, Christ tells the crowds from the mountaintop, than for your whole body to be thrown into the into Gehenna, into the smoldering city dump..into hell...
What might these words mean
in a context
where it was dubbed okay
for a man to throw his wife into the dump? into Gehenna?
In a context where it was okay for a husband to use his wife for his pleasure
and as his property
and then to send her into a living Gehenna?
Into the dumps?
Into a living Hell?
(This still happens all the time today, folks, in all sorts of relationships).
Jesus challenges abusive relationships.
Actually, he condemns them.
Unless your righteousness,
Unless your justice
(they're the same word in Greek, remember),
exceeds that, transcends that, overflows,
that of the Scribes and the Pharisees...
we heard from Christ last week,
in the verse that immediately precedes this morning's Gospel reading,
...Unless your righteousness/justice transcends that of the Scribes and the Pharisees,
you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven...
And right before that he said (remember):
"Don't think I've come to throw out the Law and the prophets.
I haven't come to throw them out, but to complete them.
To finish them.
To fill them up.
To full-fill them."
(And then he continues with today's reading).
Christ's first concern in the Gospel of Matthew, (I think),
in not following religious rules, or religious laws, or religious traditions
for the sake
of religious rules or laws or traditions, alone.
Such religion is empty.
(as we have spoken about for the last several weeks)
Christ's concern is for the Kingdom of heaven.
And the Kingdom of heaven is far from manifest
(and therefore the Law and the Prophets are far from fulfilled)
in a world where anyone is disposable,
where anyone is property,
where anyone is pushed to the edge of town,
or left for dead.
Even if popular religion allows for it,
or: even endorses it.
The Kingdom of heaven is quite the opposite.
(So, in case you missed it: This passage isn't simply about divorce, I think. It's about human rights.)
Today we celebrate two baptisms:
The baptism of
Jian Han (Ron),
and the baptism of
Man Zhang (Anna).
We celebrate that, in baptism, as St. Paul reminds us, there is no longer Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free, but that all are one, in Christ Jesus.
We also will promise, with them, to reject the ways of the world that run counter to that message of unity and equality, and counter to the message of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I'd like to invite us this morning, as we celebrate this gift of new life and new birth among us,
as the Crucified body of Christ,
standing in the hope of the Resurrection,
That we consider how we, God's renewed people, might be being called to reach out to those whose lives are Gehenna or who are far from any reality that suggests that all people are one.
And I ask that we continue to consider, as a congregation,
as we continue reading Matthew's Sermon on the Mount
(We've got it as our Gospel text for two more weeks--until the Transfiguration and LENT!)
how we might live our lives in accord with that Kingdom where
the last shall be first
and the poor and the lowly are lifted up,
and where blessed are the poor and the poor in Spirit,
where the broken and the cracked are the light of the world
and the salt of the earth.
May we actively seek to do this for the sake of the Kingdom of God on erath as it is in heaven.
May God give us the love that fulfills and completes all things,
and the mercy that seeks not to cast out into Gehenna,
but strives deeply to hold all in
reconciliation and embrace.