I’ve shared before that my first job after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology was as a teaching assistant for the Boston Public School District, working in a charter school for kids with emotional and behavioral disorders. It was an eye-opener on many different levels – it was my first full-time job, it was my first year living on my own in a city far from family and friends, and it was my first real exposure to labor unions.
Now, we’ve been through enough Labor Day weekend sermons for you to know that I’m fairly pro-labor, but I have to tell you that my single year as a card-carrying member of the teachers’ union gave me plenty of fodder for both sides of the debate. On the one hand, as a paraprofessional in an insanely demanding environment, I was truly grateful for the benefits and protections that came with being a member of the union. But I also saw some pretty questionable behavior from some of my colleagues that made me wonder whose interests came first – the teachers’ or the students’.
In particular, I worked one classroom down from a teacher who was notorious for taking two or three hour lunch breaks and leaving her students in the hands of her teaching assistant for most of the day, sometimes strolling into the building with her arms weighed down by shopping bags and then popping in a video to pass the rest of the day while she flipped through a magazine at her desk, leaving the kids mainly to their own devices.
The kids we worked with were some of the toughest in the city. Our magnet school was the last public school placement before being expelled entirely from the system. Teacher turnover and burnout were astronomically high. It was understandable that some teachers, over time, had given up and figured out what the absolute minimum required of them was in order to keep their jobs. These teachers knew the ins and outs of the union contract, and they were counting down the days until summer, or retirement.
Like I say, it was understandable, but it wasn’t right. The kids in our school were some of the poorest kids in the city. Their home lives were filled with pain and impossibility. These were kids with hard working parents juggling multiple jobs, or kids with single parents who had to look after themselves long before they were ready, or kids facing violence and abuse in their homes and on the streets. These kids needed more than the bare minimum.
That’s hard to legislate – more than the bare minimum. Laws and contracts are written in order to spell out what is necessary. They might describe what is desired or what is ideal, but in the end they can only enforce what is required.
The church has always labored in its teaching to highlight the difference between the demands of the law and the vocation or calling of the Christian. In his famous explanations of the Ten Commandments Martin Luther demonstrated how the ethic behind each commandment demanded more from us than simple legal obedience, but that we go above and beyond what is required to reach for what is needed and good, not only for ourselves but for each other as well.
So, for example, in his teaching on the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” Luther writes,
“What does this mean? Answer: we should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”
Or, again, when teaching about the meaning of the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” Luther writes,
“What does this mean? Answer: We should love and fear God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business that his means are preserved and his condition is improved.”
Do you catch the difference? In both cases, Luther teaches that Christians are called to do more than follow the letter of the law, we are called to act with concern for the needs and well-being of our neighbors. So, not only are we commanded to tell the truth about the people around us, we are instructed to defend them, to speak well of them, and to assume the best intentions when we interpret their actions. Not only are we commanded not to steal from the people around us, we are instructed to freely lend them our assistance and to help them improve their property and business, their lot in life.
The difference between what the law requires of us and what the love of God calls us to is at the heart of Jesus’ controversial words from the Sermon on the Mount in this morning’s passage from Matthew. Remember that we have been hearing the Sermon on the Mount for three weeks now, and that we are working our way through this account of Jesus’ teaching sequentially, as Matthew presents it.
Two weeks ago we heard the poetry of the Beatitudes: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and so forth, concluding with “blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
The poetry of those blessings flowed directly into the powerful metaphors we heard last week for those who attempt to live out the Beatitudes in their daily lives. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored… You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” Jesus calls those who would follow him to step out beyond the safety of communities of like-minded people to engage with the world, to be salt that enhances and preserves; to be light that discloses injustice and dispels fear.
This week Jesus moves from abstract to concrete, from poetry to prose, describing for his followers in clear language what it means to be salt and light, using examples from their own lives. So, using a form that Luther will later imitate, Jesus teaches,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus is leading us out of the forms of spirituality that lower the bar and ask only, “what is the absolute minimum required of me?” in order that we might learn to ask, “what does my neighbor need, and what benefits the community as a whole?”
And this is why,
getting to the heart of the controversy swirling around two thousand years of interpretation of these texts, we must not read Jesus’ words against divorce as an absolute prohibition – though we can speak unambiguously and adamantly about God’s desire for human community to be characterized by love, fidelity and self-sacrifice.
First we must remember that, in the context of patriarchy, where only men had the right and the power to effect a divorce and women who had been divorced were most often left economically vulnerable and socially disadvantaged, Jesus’ words actually served to provide extra protections to women and to reimagine them before his disciples as people whose sacred worth was every bit as important as their husbands’.
Second, to hear this passage as an absolute prohibition against divorce is to transform it into the very type of legalism that Jesus is calling us to leave behind. Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way,
“Those who use Matt. 5:32… in order to decide if and when divorce may be justified, unfortunately transform the text from one of permission to a legalistic exchange. What is crucial is not the question of when a marriage may be dissolved, but given the new dispensation the question should be how Christians understand marriage. In similar fashion the question is not whether a divorced woman should be allowed to remarry, but what kind of community must a church be that does not make it a matter of necessity for such a woman to remarry. If Christians do not have to marry, if women who have been abandoned do not have to remarry, then surely the church must be a community of friendship that is an alternative to the loneliness of our world.”[i]
In a world in which marriage was the only way for a woman to secure her safety and position in society, Jesus calls for a the church to be a community of care, concern and safety for all people, single or married, male or female. This is what it looked like, in Jesus day – and perhaps ours as well – to be salt and light; to be in the world, but not of it; to call out the best in people and to preserve society against decay. Not a new legalism, but a call to conversion that raises the bar and invites us to organize our lives around a better question than “what must I do to satisfy God’s requirements;” to ask and to answer the question, “how can my life serve God’s concern for the poor and the mourners, the meek and the hungry?”
To be a card-carrying Christian then is not a matter of benefitting from a contract negotiated on your behalf. To be a Christian, Jesus preaches from the mountainside, is to be in union with all of humanity – caring for the needs of your neighbor as if they were your very own.
Thanks be to God, and amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, “Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Boble,” p.70 [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006].