Digging deeper (2/12/23 Reflection on Matthew 5:21-37) #pittsfield #sermon #berkshires

During political campaigns, one of the ways to try and discredit a politician is to share one of their quotes or pictures out of context. We’ve all heard or seen this happen. For example, the attack ad starts with a close-up of a politician saying something seemingly disgusting that, when read later in the full context of their speech or interview, isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. Or, we’ve seen or shared a picture in which the look on a politician’s face or where they’re looking has nothing to do with the named context of the picture. More recently, there have been “gotcha” interviews where a paid political operative for one campaign or another asks questions of a politician to get the quote they can take out of context. There are also those who literally follow politicians around to find that one out-of-context molehill they can make into a mountain.

These out-of-context quotes used to be nuggets that campaigns would use to try and gain more votes but not anymore. Instead, these quotes are now used to solidify and strengthen the base of folks who already tend to support a candidate or a particular candidate’s issues. 

A psychological premise called “out-of-context bias” is known and used by those who help coordinate campaigns. The basic idea is that if you hear an out-of-context quote that fits your narrative about an opposing political candidate or a particular issue, you will likely see that quote as definitive. Conversely, suppose you hear an out-of-context quote that does not fit your narrative about a political candidate or a particular issue. In that case, you will likely discount that quote as irrelevant or out of context.

Otherwise, if Candidate A repeats a quote by Candidate B out of context to support the negative narrative about Candidate B, the bias of those who support Candidate A will take it at face value as an accurate depiction of what Candidate B stands for. However, suppose the supporters of Candidate B hear that exact same quote. In that case, they have a bias to reject its relevance if it counters their beliefs about Candidate B. These out-of-context quotes rarely change anyone’s mind as much as they increase the energy and financial support of those who are already likely to support a candidate or their espoused values. The particular quote may or may not make it into a news cycle, but you can count on it making it into fundraising appeals.

A very similar thing happens with biblical quotations. The scriptures read us as much as we read the scriptures. Different selections can drill down on one particular issue or another by using one particular quote or another while, intentionally or unintentionally, ignoring the historical context of the quote. That’s been done with elements of today’s scripture reading.

The piece around divorce is a particular example. 

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

The first time I had to preach on this text was while I was in the process of a divorce. I already felt pretty awful, and this didn’t help. At the time, I could only hear the condemnation. It enforced my bias at the time toward self-loathing. I don’t remember what I said then, but I can remember the dread I felt when stepping up to the pulpit. Years of seminary didn’t matter at that point. All that mattered was how I felt about myself. I’d taken this scripture from the biblical context and put it into my own without any critical thought.

A closer reading of this text reveals a couple of things. There is a context for it. You might notice a couple of things. 

This text speaks to the man who is divorcing his wife. This points toward the historical reality of marriage in the time and place of Jesus. During Jesus’ time, marriage wasn’t a romantic endeavor but an exchange of property, with the woman moving from being the property of her male-headed family to the property of the man she married. A good match was determined by something other than the personalities of the two people. It was determined by how their match might be fiscally enriching for the families of the bride and the groom. Therefore, the role and value of a woman in marriage was functional. As long as they fulfilled their role, they were taken care of as much as was necessary.

However, if a man divorced a woman, that woman was no longer under the care of the man or the family she came from. Since women rarely had access to the means of making money that men did, they became impoverished and, frequently, more neglected and exploited by the world. When a man divorced a woman, he could carry on and marry again, but a woman was in a vulnerable position with few, if any, resources.

It’s different now, at least in most of Western society. Divorce, now, is not the same thing Jesus was talking about then. Because of sexism now, women still tend to fare worse than men after a divorce, but not nearly to the same degree that used to be true. Please don’t take me out of context and say I’m encouraging divorce, but, most religious bodies don’t condemn it anymore. There is the recognition that, in some cases, divorce can be freeing and liberating in a way that it usually wasn’t during Jesus’ time.

In fact, when you put this one quote in the context of the whole scripture from today and some of those that come before and after it, it’s clear that these texts are about keeping peace, harmony, and justice in a community. It was about how to deal with conflict in a community, make sure no one is left behind in a community, and keep commitments in a community. Jesus was in the process of creating a reform movement within Jewish religious thought and the society of the time, and he needed it to hold together.

I’ve mentioned before that the idea of an individual acting separately from a group was still foreign to most people during biblical times. The most damning punishment you could place on the shoulders of any person was being ostracized from their community. Being turned outside the community meant your life was now at risk. 

Similarly, that which threatened the community was that which was condemned. Jesus was not speaking in a vacuum in today’s scriptures. He was likely responding to threats in the community. When Jesus said:

“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.”

He was probably not talking about these ideas in the abstract or other people’s behaviors but about behaviors threatening the movement Jesus was trying to start. 

He wasn’t trying to suppress anger – Jesus got angry, too – as much as trying to move from destructive anger that divided communities to something different. Conflict is normal and natural because, well, we’re people. However, Jesus encouraged his followers to focus on solving the problem the conflict highlighted instead of simply basking in the form of anger that could weaponize the conflict and threaten the health and safety of a whole community.

The reason the “passing of the peace” is included in worship before the offering is a reflection of this very scripture. Focusing on peaceful conflict resolution strengthens a community and makes a community worth sharing and giving. Anger, when expressed in an unhealthy way, can move the focus from the problem to the person in a way that saps the resources of a community.

Similarly, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No'” probably came from the experience of people in the early Jesus movement not following through on what they said or making empty promises. Again, this wasn’t about a personal experience but a community one.

This is one of the genuinely radical things about combining two church communities and forming a new ministry together in this place and time. We have the opportunity to set aside some of what is or became important to us individually to build a ministry, as a whole, that will serve God and God’s people. This idea flies in the face of every marketing piece where one organization or another highlights how they can serve us as individual consumers. 

When a concern is lifted to a business, that’s a complaint that you expect that organization to deal with, or they risk losing your business. In a church, the focus is different. When a concern is lifted up in a faith community, it is because the mission or the community is threatened, and we want to help figure it out. 

From my previous position working with several churches, what I saw as the most significant threat to the Church overall or churches specifically wasn’t as much a change in what people believed as much as a change in focus from being a member with responsibilities and rights to consumers with rights but few responsibilities. Offerings and pledges have sometimes become a fee for services rendered instead a way to join together to support the church and its mission. The broader consumerist culture has often shaped church leaders into middle managers tasked with solving church consumers’ problems instead of fellow members on a journey entrusted to help the church solve the problems that might otherwise threaten the community. The first approach separates a community from faith and sustainability. The second approach practically guarantees it.

I came here and continue to be honored to serve you because I saw, in our churches’ culture, conversations, and mission, the tendency to truly work at being a faithful community together. Do we get it perfect every single moment of every single day? Of course not. But we get it right more often than not. It’s going to be that commitment, that faithfulness that will continue to help us move forward together. It’s living into these commitments that will help our communities, too. 

I know that, sometimes, it’s easy to wonder about the relevance of the church, but could it be that, just maybe, these practices of being a community might be what the world needs a bit more of? What could be more relevant than that? Thanks be to God.

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