Thursday, 20 February 2014


On the mountain, Jesus gathered his disciples round him and taught them … Matthew ch 5 vv 21-37 Here in Matthew’s Gospel, we find an account of Jesus discussing two of the Ten Commandments: Do not murder, and Do not commit adultery. In each case he says that the old rule is in some sense inadequate: anger leads to murder, and lust leads to adultery, so it is anger and lust that must be confronted if we are to deal with murder and adultery at root. Let’s for the moment assume that this represents the thrust of Jesus’s teaching, even if the details of the account are not to be relied on, partly because they look like a hodgepodge of ideas and sayings, and partly because no-one was jotting down the details of what Jesus said. Clearly getting behind actions to the psychology that underlies them is an advance in human thinking. It doesn’t make law superfluous; whatever one might say about adultery, killing people because you’re angry with them is unequivocally wrong, and the law is surely right to forbid it and punish it. But while it’s an advance, it’s not necessarily the last word on the subject. Jesus stands somewhere along the line of people who have helped move human thinking forward; he does not stand at the end if it, and neither do we. There surely ought to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that human thinking is not, and cannot be, stuck in the first century. Generations of Christians have understood this part of Jesus’s teaching as forbidding them to be angry, or lustful outside marriage. But I don’t think that people can help being angry and lustful; these are feelings that arise in our minds, yours and mine, whether we want them to or not. If we think that we ought not to have them at all, certainly not if we have been ‘saved’, we will not be able to confront such feelings. Instead we will be prompted to deny that we have them – and to make that denial not only to other people but also to ourselves. I may be wrong, but if you think that violent anger and extra-marital lust are things you have never even felt, that might possibly be because you are trying to convince yourself that you are obeying this piece of Jesus’s teaching. I dare you to claim you haven’t felt them, and to cast the first stone at those who admit to having done so. So if we can’t obliterate our anger and lust, how are we to manage them? Clearly they must be managed: we can’t go around killing whoever we are angry with, and bedding everyone we happen to fancy. Step one is to admit to having these and similar powerful and potentially disruptive feelings. I rather suspect that part of Jesus’s subtlety here is precisely to point out that avoiding actually killing and actually committing adultery does not make you existentially different from the rest of humanity; we are all cut from the same cloth, woven through with anger and lust. Step two is to ask what they may be telling us about our lives and our relationships. What is it that’s causing us to be angry or to look lustfully elsewhere? Can something be done about that, maybe using the energy of the anger or lust to some positive purpose? Perhaps some such thought process caused Jesus’s anger about profiteering in the Temple to express itself constructively but still angrily in the minor riot he caused in the Temple courtyard. Step three is to think about our emotions in the context of our commitments and our relationships, taking the commitments seriously and taking account of how our relationships may be affected by our giving a freer reign to the emotions we have confronted. You can’t read this passage without noticing that it speaks about divorce, a subject that is of deep concern to the churches. The text is not wholly certain, by the way: some ancient manuscripts have Jesus forbidding divorce even in the case of the wife’s adultery. Nor does all of it make sense: a man cannot by divorcing his wife make her into an adulteress in any strict sense. I’m not convinced that Jesus of Nazareth really wanted to lay down the law about sexual relationships; it doesn’t seem to be central to his programme, and what Jewish Matthew has him say here is pretty much what you’d expect of a Jewish writer of the period. But I don’t doubt that Jesus thought that people ought to take their sexual relationships seriously, for at least two reasons. First, his harsh words about those who let down children suggest that he would have thought that the interests of any children needed to have priority over the parents’ inclinations. Second, since in his view our human relationships are of such critical importance, he would surely have wanted to discourage us from trifling with the feelings of other people, including those with whom we have intimate relations. He also knew that people make and not only recover from but also grow through mis-steps on life’s path, as did the Prodigal Son. How all this applies to any particular relationship is up to us to work out, because every human situation is unique. It’s only a particular type of legal mind that pretends that rules can be written that cover every eventuality, and Jesus for one was not of that mind. That’s because he was not in the business of laying down any kind of law, even if he would no doubt have understood the inevitability of law in complex societies like his own. Rather he wanted to help people lead makarios lives, developing dispositions that would enrich their relationships and bring them inward joy and peace. Institutions that share that motive and try to act on it out on a large scale find it hard to avoid what seems to be the easy route of reviving the legalistic approach Jesus had gone beyond, replete with rules and prohibitions governing actions. When they find themselves becoming part of the apparatus of government, it becomes impossible to avoid it. Perhaps that was one reason why Jesus’s programme did not include the establishment of a new institution. A lesson there perhaps?

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