Tag Archives: divorce

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!

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Eden Trumps Sinai: Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel reading

Click here for a printable version.

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of San Francisco. And if the truth be known, I would rather be preaching on Francis’ love of creation than on Jesus’ pronouncements on divorce. But the prayer book is clear: the Sunday readings take precedence over a lesser feast. So be it!

Some weeks, you have to search pretty hard to find good news in the Good News. Last week, Jesus spoke hyperbolically about self-mutilation: cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes. This week, we find Jesus teaching about divorce and remarriage. And if understood as a blanket prohibition, this teaching can be a heavy burden on people whose marriages are irretrievably broken. Despite appearances to the contrary, there is good news in Jesus’ words.

The Pharisees come to Jesus in order to test him. But the question they ask him really isn’t a very tricky test question. They ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” I say this question isn’t very tricky, because the answer, given in Deuteronomy, is an unequivocal “Yes.” These Pharisees must have heard that Jesus had a different view, and they wanted to expose him as a heretic. Jesus asks them, “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees answer that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife. Here, Jesus scores a debate point by getting the Pharisees to admit that this concession derives from Moses, not God. In their response, the Pharisees refer to Deuteronomy. There, Moses states that a man can divorce his wife on the grounds of “an indecent act” by giving her a “certificate of cutting-off.” Now in Jesus’ day, there was a debate among the Pharisees as to what exactly constituted “an indecent act.” One school of thought, associated with the House of Shammai, was that it was limited to sexual misconduct on the part of the woman, whereas the House of Hillel insisted that, if a wife so much as burned her husband’s dinner, it was “an indecent act” and was grounds for divorce.

Jewish writ of Divorce

Jewish writ of Divorce

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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.

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