Building a Fence around the Torah

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

For the last two Sundays, 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 used to call “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, and Judaism even has a term for it. 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 further prohibition against cooking meat and dairy products in the same pan or storing meat and dairy 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 now.

anger-or-the-tussle-1516The first “antithesis” deals with the issue of anger. Jesus starts out by reminding his audience of the biblical 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 can be deadly, both literally and figuratively.

Jesus then expands on this point with two “mini-parables.” In one, a man has traveled to Jerusalem to make an animal sacrifice at the Temple for the expiation of his sins, 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. But it points out that reconciliation with God is only possible if we are reconciled with one another first. When we share the Peace later in the service, it is more than just a casual greeting to a neighbor, it is a liturgical sign that we who are gathered here today are reconciled.

The next “mini-parable” is about one 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. The key to the allegory is 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. The decoded message is to make your peace with your fellow human beings before you die, lest you suffer divine condemnation!

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. Intention is key here! 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: “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 is reference to unwanted touching.

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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 ancient Jewish legalists were of the opinion that burning a husband’s dinner was sufficiently “indecent” to permit 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 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 woman whose husband divorced her for grounds other than unchastity is also forbidden, because with the divorce being invalid, the new marriage would be both bigamous and adulterous.

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Now all this legalism is problematic, especially today, when almost one out of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce. Frankly, the Church from very early on has found Jesus’ teaching on divorce to be impracticable. The Orthodox Church allows a person to divorce and remarry twice. After three marriages, you’ve reached your limit. The Roman Catholic Church forbids divorce, but allows something virtually indistinguishable, 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 very best not to make the same mistakes again! 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, not condemn them.

trump-to-be-sworn-in-using-lincoln-bibleThe 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 serve on a jury 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 is referring to former, not the latter. 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 integrity; Jesus expects us always to speak the truth and always to be bound by our word.

Today, we witnessed Jesus’ building a fence around four commandments of 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 and to avoid divorce. 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. If we do these things, we will be well on our way to living “as if,” as if we were already there in that heavenly Kingdom for which we daily pray.

© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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