This sermon was preached at Knox on Feb. 12, 2017 based on Matthew 5:21-37.
My stepfather Dave makes the best sandwiches. My family lives in Ohio and whenever they come out to visit, I always ask him to make me a sandwich. My dad treats a sandwich like a meal. He slices tomatoes and onions, and layers it up real nice with cheese and turkey and lettuce. Some mayonnaise. Some mustard. Some Italian dressing. All on good bread. Served with some chips. Pickles, too, if there’s any lurking in the fridge. They are really good sandwiches.
I’m usually a lazy sandwich maker. I can layer together some bread and turkey, and it’s fine. I’ll eat it, but it’s not the same as my dad’s juicy sandwich with the onions sliced just right and the fresh tomatoes.
In thinking about his sandwiches, I realized that if you take any one ingredient out of the sandwich and try to serve it on its own, it might be edible but it doesn’t have the same effect.
Like, if I just plopped some onion on a plate - even if it’s the finest and most expensive onion in the world - and called it a sandwich, you could eat it...but would you want to?
Listening to today’s Scripture from Matthew, particularly the section on divorce, might feel like someone just plopped a big pile of onion here on the floor and it’s sitting there making everything smell like onion, and all our eyes water. Believe me, I know it stinks a little. For the first part of the week, as I was wrestling with what to say about this scripture, it was very tempting to skip to some other part of the bible that’s easier to swallow.
Then, I must have been hungry and thinking about sandwiches, and I realized onion is not good on it’s own, but a little is good on a sandwich. When we pull out individual scriptures without the context, we’re missing the point, like serving up plain onion instead of the whole sandwich. Instead of skipping the individual scripture because we disagree with it or it makes us uncomfortable, we might wrestle with it, reflect on it, live with it for a while to see what ideas and thoughts it brings into our lives. In my opinion, it’s not about liking or disliking the scripture (the way you might like or dislike onions), it’s about engaging with the reading like you would engage in a lively conversation with a friend (maybe while you eat a sandwich?)
This portion from Matthew 5:21-37 is a central part Jesus’ ministry, from a very famous sermon called “The Sermon on the Mount”. For the section on divorce, to understand what Jesus could have meant, let’s think about what marriage was in Jesus time. Marriage was not hearts and flowers Valentine’s day chocolate romance. It wasn’t even two equal adults committed to life together.
It was a financial transaction between a father and his future son-in-law. It was a transfer of property. The property being the wife. Yes, there may have been feelings of affection between father and daughter, and husband and wife. But, despite any warm feelings, the daughter was quite literally the property of her father until he transferred control of her over to her husband.
At the time of Jesus the word which is translated as “divorce” meant more closely that the husband could “dismiss her” or “send her away” if he wanted to, like a servant or a slave. Legally, since a wife was property, and not really a person, if she was sent away, she went without any way of earning a living or taking care of herself, unless she were to find another husband. So, the divorcing husband needed to give her a certificate of divorce which said that it was ok for her to find another husband. Saying, basically, that there wasn’t anything wrong with her, he just didn’t want her anymore. Otherwise, you were dooming her to a life of poverty. So that’s the cultural context about marriage.
Now let’s turn to Jesus. Let’s imagine Jesus sitting on a hillside (since it’s the sermon on the mount). Imagine him reclining on a grassy slope, in the warm sunshine, speaking kindly with a gentle tone. He’s been talking to his disciples about ethics, about how to be good people.
As part of this, Jesus says to his disciples something like this: the law says you can dismiss your wife as long as you give her a certificate of divorce, but I say don’t dismiss her because if you send her away, how will she live? She’s going to have to go find another husband who might not be as good as you. Don’t be selfish, even if it’s legal. Better to consider what bad things might happen to her if you send her away her on a whim.
In each step of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, including the verses on divorce, he’s asking his disciples to live with grace. Here he’s teaching his disciples to think about their wives - not as property - but as people who might be harmed by being sent away. This another way of saying “Love your neighbor as yourself”. If you go through the sermon on the mount (and you should ;) Jesus shows his disciples how to apply the standard “love your neighbor as yourself” to different situations in their daily lives.
If we come back to our metaphorical sandwich, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is Jesus’ own special sauce that gets served over every word he says.
The challenge for the Christian today, then, isn’t to get hung up on the individual words or outdated religious law of the Bible. If we do that, then we all need to go live in the desert with no indoor plumbing. If we go back to biblical law on divorce, then we need to go back to biblical law on marriage where you can have more than one wife at a time if you’re rich, and all the wives are property. I don’t think we want to turn back that clock.
In essence, the challenge Jesus gave his disciples on the mountain was to see how to apply “love your neighbor as yourself” in their own lives, and that is our challenge. In each moment, to think about how to love one another. The bad news is...all of us - regardless of our relationship status - will fail at loving other people in some way. The good news is...God loves us infinitely and we are forgiven already for any mistakes we make.
I started today talking about my stepdad’s yummy sandwiches. He takes time to slice the onion thinly, and to use good tomatoes, and is generous with the dressings. That’s not what makes them delicious, though. What makes them delicious is that his sandwiches come with a side of love. Even though we are not related by blood, it is the gracious, God-given love of a father for his beloved child.
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