For the past two Sundays the Gospel lection has been focusing on Jesus' teachings in Matthew's Gospel that we call "The Sermon on the Mount". Matthew 5 begins with the familiar Beatitudes that list character traits of those who desire to follow Jesus. It continues with the other familiar passage wherein Jesus says that his followers would be "the salt of the earth" and the "light of the world", two metaphors for how Christians are to relate to others in the world around them.
This week, Jesus' teachings confront the religious leaders of his day as he begins each section with the phrase, "You have heard it said..." and then puts one of their teachings on its head by saying, "But I say..." These passages are sometimes referred to as Jesus' hard sayings because he confronts the teachings of his day that have to do with how people live. Those teachings are just as relevant today because they have to do with anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing by oaths, things that all of us hear about on a daily basis as we live together.
Jesus lived in a day when males were dominant over females. Women were considered to be the property of a man, moving from the house of parents who ruled her life to the house of a husband who provided for her needs. Our modern marriage ceremonies once contained the phrase, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" but such language was removed from the ceremonies of most mainline churches in recognition that women are not property and cannot be given by anyone to anyone else. Instead, we ask, "Who presents this woman...?"
Women lived with their husbands and were considered to be caretakers of the house and children and the men in the house were considered to be much more valuable than they were. If a man who cared for a woman died, then she would be considered to be at the mercy of society. Hebraic law commanded people to care for "widows and orphans" because they were considered to be the most helpless persons in society. It was the duty of all to care for those who had no one else assigned to care for them. Immigrants and refugees were also to be cared for by society because they had little to sustain them on their journeys.
Women had few rights and a man could decide to divorce his wife for no reason. He only had to tell he that he no longer wanted her as his wife and then he could abandon her. If a man simply tired of having a woman as his wife, he could expel her from his house and she would have no place to go. Jesus is addressing divorce because it was part of a one sided social system of his day, with only men having the right to ask for a divorce. Jesus was trying to teach the men of his day that they should have serious grounds for divorce before asking for one because it was not a matter to be considered trivial.
Jesus' social teachings were directed toward society of his day that was grounded in the ancient Mosaic law that moved society from "an eye for an eye" to exacting punishment that would fit a crime instead of promoting chaos and havoc in society. Before the giving of the law to Israel, bands of people would attack and kill entire tribes or families in retribution for a fault that was done to one person. The law attempted to make retribution equivalent so that the punishment would not be more severe than it should.
Jesus wanted those listening to him to consider how people should live in relationship with one another, not becoming angry over little things or cursing one another (swearing oaths against others to bring them harm) or desiring what others had including their wives. Such were common practices in Jesus' day. Jesus wanted those who would follow him to know that members of the Kingdom of Heaven would be different than those who inhabited earth. They would strive for higher goals and a better way of living.
Jesus' teachings are just as relevant today as they were when he gave them. We still have rampant violence in the world around us. We still have some who wish to exact retribution for every slight. We still have brokenness in society that needs repair. Jesus' teachings of love and mercy need to be repeated often in the ears of all who would listen so that grace may heal the wounds of many who have only heard judgment preached by those who profess to be followers of the Prince of Peace.