Turning Certainty On Its Head
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 5:21-37
On first glance, it seems from this gospel that none of us are safe from Jesus’ judgment. Okay, so you haven’t committed murder, he says, but if you’ve been angry it’s just as bad. Is there anyone here who hasn’t once been angry in their life? As for committing adultery, he says, simply looking at another woman with lust is basically the same thing. It seems that only gay men and straight women are off the hook on this one…and maybe not even them. And sexual unfaithfulness is the only valid reason for divorce, Jesus teaches us. And marrying a divorced woman is the same as committing adultery. I’m not going to name names, but I know a few of you here are in trouble.
So we have a choice. We can read these literally and pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands in the name of faithfulness, or we can pull back and see the intent of what Jesus was saying.
You have heard it said 'you shall not murder, but I say to you, this is really about anger. I don’t think Jesus was saying that being angry is the same thing as murdering someone. I do think he’s making a point about where anger left unchecked can lead. Anger which leads to judgment which leads to insult is what leads to the dangerous stuff. So Jesus calls us to make peace before it gets out of hand, to reconcile with our siblings before we come to the table together. In fact, that’s what passing the peace during worship is about.
You have heard it said, you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, men, you need to stop making sex objects of women. When it comes to adultery, Jesus is shifting the focus. Typically in a patriarchal society, it’s the woman who is more severely judged for unfaithfulness than the man. It was true in Jesus’ time and it’s still true now. But what Jesus is saying is, It’s on men to recognize and shift how they view and treat women.
You have heard it said, Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce, but I say to you, that mostly leaves women in the lurch. Divorce has generally always favored men, and that was definitely the case in Jesus’ time. Because generally women were dependent on men for their survival. They couldn’t make a living on their own. That’s not how their world was structured. So when a man asked for a divorce—and only a man could formally initiate a divorce, a woman couldn’t—he would be fine but not only did the woman was generally bear the brunt of shame and blame for the end of their marriage, she also had a hard time surviving on her own.
That was broadly true in our own country until relatively recently—it wasn’t until the 1960s that all women in the United States were allowed to open a bank account. And this dependency on men is still true for a lot of women today.
So when Jesus says that divorce should not be so easily given, it’s not far-fetched to think that he’s trying to protect women.
“You have heard it said…” This is Jesus’ way of saying, “you think you know the right and proper way things should be.”. But then he says, “But I say to you.” Which is his way of saying, “Is your vision for this world so small?”
“You cling to certainty,” Jesus says, “but I’m here to make cracks in all you think you’re sure about.”
I have a Masters Degree in this Christian stuff. I have taken multiple Bible courses, diving deep into different parts of our scripture. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church where I memorized scriptures like it was my job.
And after all of that, I can only come to two certain conclusions from our Bible: First, God is love. But that springs from the second: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Jesus’ lens for interpreting his entire faith? Love. Which is what he teaches his disciples, and us. Which is what leads me to have absolute certainty that God is love.
Oh, and we think we know what love is. I think I know what love is. You have heard it said that love is this warm and squishy feeling that makes us happy all the time.
But Jesus says to us, sometimes love isn’t that simple.
A lot of you have heard me talk about my time as a chaplain on the streets of the Tenderloin, a rough neighborhood in San Francisco.
I would say that at least 70% of the people I talked to had a mental health issue for which there were no accessible options for them to get good treatment. So a lot of them self-medicated with alcohol, marijuana, and meth. Which obviously compounded their issues.
I tended mostly to unhoused folks, but I also regularly met with a few people who lived in SROs, Single Room Occupancies. It’s a step above the shelters—long-term housing in a dorm for very low income people.
Richard lived in an SRO and had been unhoused for many years before because of his untreated schizophrenia. Now, he was keeping up with his medication and seeing his support people regularly. He was on a bus for hours every day going to different parts of the city to keep up with his mental health care. It was a full-time job. I was one of his support people. We had communion together every week. He consecrated it. It was a pretty loosey-goosey liturgical situation.
What I quickly discovered about Richard was that he took the Bible literally and he had a good amount of it memorized. He was very often disappointed with me when I didn’t know what book he was quoting. He railed against adultery, people who do drugs, and anyone who committed blasphemy against the Spirit—which in his opinion was a lot of people.
I’m sure you can guess what I did. I tried to convince him that the Bible wasn’t literal—that it was in fact impossible for it to be literal. I thought I was being loving, teaching him a more expansive way of looking at his faith, but whenever I did he would get confused and agitated. He didn’t get mad at me, he just couldn’t fit what I was saying into his worldview. What I was saying was so destabilizing for him.
It took me longer than it should have, but I finally started to realize some things: first, Richard’s schizophrenic mind needed black and white rules to follow. His life depended on the Bible being a straight and narrow guide.It gave his mind a point of reference, it gave his heart peace.
Who the heck was I to tell him otherwise? Just because he found peace differently than I did didn’t mean his peace wasn’t real. It was, I could see it. He was a soft and kind soul. Despite his literalism, he treated me, a woman, like his pastor, and at my good-bye party he was delighted to meet my female partner.
I was so certain about what God’s expansive love looked like that I couldn’t see how God’s expansive love was already at work in Richard’s life.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t speak out if a particular way of believing is harming people, the way that certain approaches to Christianity harm queer folks, women, people in poverty, and so on. Jesus constantly spoke out against how some religious people put religious rules above healing, above love.
What I am saying is that Jesus also has a knack for turning our certainty on its head.
You have heard it was said
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Your imagination held tight by what is.
But I say to you
a better way there may be
sight isn’t vision,
what’s comfortable can be a sham,
how things are
excludes too much.
For if you let what is, be all
where do you see
the Kingdom’s changing call?
From a poem by Christopher Burkett