Building a Fence around the Torah

Homily for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Since last Sunday, we have been hearing excerpts from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “… not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Today, we hear what biblical scholars have named “The Antitheses.” (To be more precise, we hear four of the six antitheses; the other two will be heard next week.) Now, an “antithesis” is a rhetorical contrast of opposites. And the presumption has often been that Jesus is opposing his new laws against the old Jewish laws. But considering what Jesus said about not abolishing even one stroke of one letter of the Law, it seems unlikely to me that “The Antitheses” are, in fact, antitheses!

What then, is Jesus up to? Well, he’s doing something very Jewish. He’s “building a fence around the Torah.” It has long been a practice in Judaism to draw a legal circle around a commandment, so that one would never even come close to breaking the original commandment. A classic example is the commandment not to eat a baby goat boiled in its mother’s milk. From this came the prohibition against eating meat and dairy products at the same meal. And from this came the prohibition against ever cooking meat and dairy products in the same pan or storing meat and dairy products in the same refrigerator. I think that this is what Jesus is up to in today’s Gospel reading!

With that in mind, let’s go through each of the four so-called “Antitheses” and try to figure out what Jesus was asking of his disciples then and what he is asking of us today.

The first “antithesis” deals with the issue of anger. Jesus starts out by reminding his audience of the prohibition against murder. He then says that calling someone a fool in anger is tantamount to murder and will land the guilty party in Hell. Now, rest assured that Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole here. Be that as it may, he does so, in order to drive home the point that anger of any sort is deadly.

Jesus then expands on this point with two “mini-parables.” In one, someone has traveled to Jerusalem to make an animal sacrifice at the Temple for the expiation of his sins against God, when he remembers his sin against a fellow Israelite. He leaves his sacrifice incomplete, travels back to his home town, makes up with his neighbor, and then heads back to Jerusalem to make his peace with God. It’s an improbable scenario, to say the least. But it tells us that reconciliation with God is only possible if we are reconciled with one another first. When we give the Peace during Holy Eucharist, such reconciliation is what we are meant to be about. The Peace is not a chance to catch up with old friends or to talk church business. It’s our opportunity to say in the presence of God that we are reconciled with our fellow worshipers.

The second “mini-parable” is about a man taking another man to court over unpaid debts. Jesus says that if the debtor has any sense, he’ll settle out of court and not risk going to debtors’ prison. This little parable is an allegory. Keep in mind that the word “debt” in Aramaic is also the word for “sin.” In this parable, the judge is God, and the debtor’s prison is Hell. In other words, make your peace with your fellow human beings before you die, and don’t risk divine condemnation!

Now, unless you have greater control over your emotions than I have, you can’t always prevent yourself from feeling anger. But in this case, Jesus has given us a way out: when we get angry, we are exhorted to make peace and to reconcile.

The second “antithesis” deals with lust. Jesus expands the biblical prohibition against adultery into a more inclusive prohibition against lust. (Note here that Jesus is only addressing the men in his audience. So, you women are off the hook!) Jesus says that lust is the same as adultery, or to be more precise, looking at a woman with the intention of lusting after her is the same as adultery. (Unfortunately, the English translation omits the reference to intention.) So, admiring a pretty woman is not forbidden. But ogling a woman and thinking of her as a sex object are forbidden. Jesus emphasizes the prohibition with more hyperbole—and it is hyperbole! “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out!” “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off!” This scary bit about plucking out one’s eye refers to lustful ogling. The bit about cutting off one’s right hand points to a more active form of lust, such as groping. Enough said!

The third antithesis deals with the thorny subject of divorce. Jewish Law allows a man to divorce his wife over a “matter of indecency.” Some Jewish legalists have considered burning a husband’s dinner sufficiently “indecent” to warrant divorce. Others were of the opinion that only adultery was sufficient grounds to divorce a wife. (As you may know, Jewish women in Jesus’ day were never allowed to divorce their husbands.) Jesus seems to agree with the more restricted opinion. Divorce, and presumably remarriage, is only permitted in the case of a wife’s adultery. In Jesus’ view, to divorce a woman on other grounds is invalid, and it forces the former wife to commit adultery, should she ever remarry. To marry a divorced woman is forbidden because if her divorce was invalid, then the new marriage is both bigamous and adulterous. And if the woman’s divorce was valid, it means that the man is marrying an adulteress, which evidently is also forbidden.

Now all this legalism is problematic. And it’s especially problematic today, when one out of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce. To be honest, the Church from early on has found Jesus’ teaching too harsh. The Orthodox Church allows a person to divorce and remarry twice. After that, you’ve reached your limit. The Roman Catholic Church forbids divorce, but allows something very similar, namely, annulment. The Episcopal Church is even more lenient. You can divorce and remarry in the church as many times as your diocesan bishop chooses to allow. So what are we to do with Jesus’ teaching? First, I think we should honestly acknowledge what is written in the book of Malachi: “God hates divorce.” Consequently, the Church should do everything in its power to support people in their marriages. When people do divorce and remarry, they should acknowledge that they were, for whatever reason, unable to keep Jesus’ commandment. They should repent any personal failures. Then they should do their darnedest not to make the same mistakes! The reality is that even the most devout disciples of Christ can stumble. When they do, the rest of us are meant to pick them up and help them on their way.

The fourth antithesis, and the last that we will be dealing with this week, is a prohibition against taking oaths. Jesus takes the biblical injunction against swearing falsely and expands it into a prohibition against swearing oaths. Now, this is not a prohibition that most of us have to deal with, unless we are asked to make a deposition or testify in court. Is Jesus really forbidding taking oaths in such situations? Some Christian sects have taken this view. Most denominations, however, have not. Here’s why. In Jesus’ day, people made oaths everyday over trivial matters as a rhetorical device to emphasize their honesty and commitment. They also took formal oaths in legal and religious contexts. The probability is that Jesus was not making a blanket prohibition against all oaths, but is referring to informal oaths over trivial matters. After all, many righteous figures in both the Old and New Testaments made oaths. Even God is said to have made oaths! The upshot for us today is that, as disciples of Jesus, we should have no need to use oaths in everyday speech to emphasize our honesty and commitment, because Jesus expects us always to speak the truth and always to be bound by our word. Here again, we have our work cut out for us!

So today, we get Jesus’ expansion of four precepts of the Jewish Law, “building a fence around the Torah.” We are warned not to give into anger and to reconcile when we do. We are told not to think of others as sex objects. We are commanded to respect marriage to the utmost of our ability. And we are told to speak with honesty and to make our word our bond. If we do these things, we will have fulfilled a higher righteousness, keeping not just the letter of the Law, but the spirit of the Law. And we will find ourselves living the life of God’s Kingdom in the here and now.

May God grant us the strength to ever continue in that Kingdom life. Amen.

© 2014 by Darren Ryan Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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