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Signs and Laws and whatnot

There’s a sort-of joke among clergy, that once you run out of preaching material that starts “When I was in seminary”, then you have to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and then that should carry you through til retirement.

I have been to Israel/Palestine four times now, and I rarely talk about it from the pulpit. I can count the number of times I’ve done so on both hands. It’s not because the experience hasn’t been transformative; it’s the reverse. For me, being there and spending time with Palestinian Christians has so shaped my understanding of Christianity and what Christ calls us to be that I have trouble distilling that into short images that go into sermons. It’s a worldview, and not so much an anecdote.

However, as I am just back again, I took this opportunity to talk about some of the things I saw and possibly how they reflect our reality on this side of the pond.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 16, 2020

Epiphany 6, Year A


Each time I return to the Holy Land, there are more laws.  Sometimes the laws make sense (“No drones in churches!”), some times they make cultural sense (“No shorts in churches!”), and some times, they just don’t make any sense at all. 
On this trip, as on my last trip, when you pass into Bethlehem, you see enormous red signs, by the roadside, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  The signs proclaim ominously that if you take this turn-off, you are entered Area A—controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  “This is a danger to life, and illegal for citizens of Israel.”  the sign says. 

Despite the sign’s tone, Bethlehem is hardly a threat to life.  In fact, the best falafel ever is to be found there, as well as any number of delightful, friendly and hospitable people.  But—the sign is the sign, and I am aware that for many other people, that sign and the law behind it represent a very real fear and trauma.  Even if, to the majority of the world, Area A seems perfectly safe.  

So, it would seem there are laws and there are laws.  Laws trying to urge the good and forbid the bad, laws trying to protect public safety, laws designed for their own circuitous ends, and laws designed to harm others.  As humans are a complicated bunch, so too, it would seem, are laws.

This gospel is a continuation of the gospel from last week.  So much so that I’m irritated at the lectionary for chopping it in two.  If you remember, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount at this point.  He’s talking about how those called to follow him are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world—and then he says—“Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

THAT’s the prologue to this week’s lecture on….adultery, divorce, and debtor’s prison?  That sounds INCREDIBLY harsh and impossible to live up to.  And if we take it in isolation, it sounds like Jesus has taken an unfortunately legalistic turn.  

But a couple things to remember here:

For starters, here again is your regular reminder that We Like The Pharisees.  The Pharisees were Good Guys, and in fact, this is one place where Jesus explicitly says so!

The Pharisees, besides being inventors of modern Judaism, got their start by being a democratizing force within the Judaism of Jesus’ day.  They saw keeping the law as something that put God within reach of everyone—not just the wealthy, not just those who could go to the Temple in Jerusalem, and not just those smart enough to read Torah, but everyone.  The reason they were so obsessed with the law was because they saw it as a mechanism to achieving God’s reign of justice and peace on earth, and a way to make that available to everyone.  And that’s a good thing. 

So when Jesus starts listing off these things about debt, and adultery, and divorce—he’s not quite giving edicts, as much as he’s giving examples of how one’s righteousness should surpass the Pharisees.  There’s a bit of hyperbole in here, which was a common rabbinic rhetorical device.  But mostly, he’s trying to get this point across.

So, for example, this thing about murder.  The law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy prohibits murder, of course, but Jesus takes it one step further, pointing out that it is hypocritical to try to worship God while you are in a broken relationship with your fellow human.  So, you should take care to make sure that both relationships are in order.

Similarly, when we get into the sticky subjects of adultery and marriage, the same dynamics are in play.  Under Jewish law, divorce was allowed, but only the man was allowed to ask for a divorce.  The consequences for the woman were often dire, as she was left estranged from her family of origin and without economic support.  Women were not permitted to procure a divorce for themselves.

So here we see Jesus do the usual one-step-further thing, but what is interesting here is that Jesus reinterprets the law to give women more security.  The way he puts it, the onus is on MEN not to gaze lustfully at women.  MEN also have to avoid divorcing their wives for flimsy reasons, because it will end badly for them.  Women just get to hang out.  

(As a sidenote—this is not the way these verses are generally interpreted, in evangelical culture at least. But it’s worth noting that when Jesus is talking about lusting in your heart, he’s speaking to men about their ability to control themselves—he’s not placing a burden on women.)

Repeatedly, in these examples, we see Jesus reaching to retrieve the vision of justice that the law was meant to enshrine, and holding it up.  If you want to follow me, he says, then you need to not only follow the law, but commit yourself to the spirit of it.

In each example, Jesus is concerned not just with following the law for the law’s sake, but with honoring the concerns of each person involved, with making sure every person is able to flourish within the community.  And so should our concern be.  It is not enough to be concerned only with doing the “right thing” for the sake of “the right thing”.  Our concern needs to be the wholeness of each member of our community.  The wholeness of each person we encounter—whether their needs and concerns are explicitly enshrined in laws that apply to us or not.  

As Christians, we can never say to each other that we are unaffected by what happens to each other.  The way we live together matters.  The way we treat one another matters.  God gave us the law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, not to trap us into messing up, but in order to enable us to live together and flourish in a society.  God cares very much about how we live together—which is why Jesus is giving a long talk about things like debts, marriage, and divorce.

As we gaze with immense approbation towards what will surely be another tense election year, I want to remind you that God cares very much how we live together.  And so, it is the concern of the church how we treat one another, and how we structure our common life.  We cannot, as Christians, separate our lives into “Jesus affected stuff” and “Non-Jesus affected stuff”, because it all is. The sort of low-level politics of how we live together, how we care for one another, how we protect one another, and how we ensure all God’s children can be treated as the treasures they are—that is the concern of the church, and if we turn away from it, then we are abandoning part of our mission.

Now, I feel pretty confident in saying that God doesn’t care overmuch about whose candidate is shiniest, whose political party is better, who has more fundraisers, or even who is a better American.  That teeth-grinding partisan horse race stuff isn’t helpful, and it’s not our concern as Christians.

It all passes away, anyway.  Our ultimate concern is to do as Jesus did. To listen to our Messiah on the hillside, as he encourages us to love one another, even more than we are required to.  To care for one another, even more than we are required to.  To find justice for one another, even more than we are required to.  

When we focus on caring for one another, when we focus on making sure everyone can be who God has called them to be, and can flourish as God intended, then we are keeping our focus on God’s reign, and Christ’s mission for us.

Then we can weather any campaign season, or any storm, while doing the work of Christ.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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