Epiphany 6A, 2011
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Earlier this week I was having a discussion with our young adult group here at church about the classic move, The Wizard of Oz. We were talking about the moment when Dorothy and the farmhouse, carried aloft in the tornado, land in Oz on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy, filmed in black and white, opens the farmhouse door, and suddenly the movie is in color. I was telling the young adults, all in their twenties, that for many years, watching the movie on TV as a child, I didn’t know about the change from black and white to color, because our TV was black and white. One young man stared at me, uncomprehending. “You mean, you watched it on VHS?” he asked. “No, that was long before video tape. All the televisions were black and white until the early 1960’s.” He continued to stare at me in utter bewilderment – I don’t think he’s ever seen a black and white television.
Not only did my generation grow up watching black and white TV, but all of our lives were black and white. I grew up in a white suburb, went to a white church, and went from grades one through twelve without a single person of color in my school except the janitors and one high school coach (who, by the way, was adored by the students and voted teacher of the year). Black people lived in downtown or East Baltimore, or places very far away like Little Rock or Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, and we watched them on the news at night as white people tried to prevent them from attending white schools and colleges and from riding in the front of city buses. I had no black friends. But at the dinner table, as we would talk about the sometimes literal burning issues of the day, my father would give his opinions about black people. He worked with black people every day on the construction site. The black people he knew were uneducated and literally dug ditches for him. So he did not have a high opinion of black people, because of the black people he knew, and he assumed that all black people were like the people he knew digging ditches for him every day.
It wasn’t until college that I made my first black friend, a student on my dormitory hall named Gordon Wichter. Gordon was brilliant, he was funny, and not like any of the things my father had said black people were like. Gordon started the Black Student Association at UVa in his dormitory room that first year. I got to know other students in the Association, and they weren’t like the people my father talked about, either. And I made my first Jewish friends, my first Asian friends, my first gay friends. And none of them were like the stories I had heard about them all my life.
What had happened was that I moved from thinking about people as things – whether black or white or gay or Asian or Jewish – to knowing them as real people who were amazing in their diversity and complexity and wonder. So, when I went home for the first time that first fall, and my father began to talk about such and such a group of people who act and think and do and believe in such and such a way, I reacted by telling him that I knew people in those groups, and that’s not the way they were at all. I now knew more than my father, which made him ever so happy. As the saying goes, you can always tell a college freshman, but you cannot tell him much.
In this morning’s lesson, Jesus gives us two concrete situations in which people are being treated as objects, and not as living, caring people. The first is in the case of lust. Lust is not an exclusively male problem, I’m sorry to say. In fact, it’s been my observation that especially among adolescents, girls are at least as often the aggressors as are the guys. So, let’s make Jesus’ words inclusive: anyone who looks at anyone with lust has already committed adultery.
On Super Bowl Sunday, many evangelical churches decided to talk about pornography. I don’t know why they decided to talk about porn on that Sunday, but I find the connection intriguing. Fox TV’s introduction to the Super Bowl, linking it with the Declaration of Independence, the sacrifice of soldiers, and the greatest generation was, I thought, if not pornographic at least obscene. The internet has made pornography easily and cheaply available to everyone, and it is a serious issue everywhere, including in church households.
The second, and connected, issue Jesus addresses is divorce. The issue of divorce in the first century was that Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife on the spot for the most trivial of causes – from a wart to bad cooking to talking too much. The husband could simply say in public, “I divorce you,” and the woman was left bereft of home and care. The link between lust and first-century divorce is that both treated people as objects – as things to be coveted or to be thrown away. Both situations treat people as property: I want that car, I want that dress, I want that person. I don’t want that car or that dress anymore – I don’t want that person anymore.
Not long ago a man came to me to talk about the struggles he continued to have into middle age with lust. Again, I don’t believe that’s an exclusively male issue. In fact, one of the flip sides of the women’s movement has been, in the words of a friend of mine, to now allow women to be as immature and irresponsible as men have long been. I told the struggling man that one of the things that really helped me was to separate appreciating beauty from the desire to possess. I can go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and admire a Monet or a Picasso painting without feeling like I need to have that painting on the wall of my house. In the same way, I have learned to look at people and say, “That person is beautiful” without the need to “have” that person. The world says that to like or to love means that we must possess. That’s a lie. The truth is that none of us ever really possess anything – as the John Ortberg book the Grace Davis class is studying says, “It all goes back into the box,” just as someday you and I have to go back into the box as well. When we begin to understand how to love without having to have, we are freed to love more than we ever dreamed possible.
People are not things, Jesus is telling us, to be coveted or to be thrown away. And, because people are not things but sacred and unique, each person is to be known and understood and loved not as a category – black, white, male, female, young, old, Christian, Muslim, Jew, liberal, conservative, Hokie, Wahoo . . . fill in your own blank . . . but, in the words of a song by John McCutcheon, as Moishe, Isabelle, Sipho, Mikael, Kim, Mohammed, Red Hawk, and Tim. At the hard-core heart of Christian faith is the conviction that God has made and loves every single human being deliberately and uniquely. That, by the way, is the fundamental connection between Christianity and democracy – that the individual is sacred and unique and therefore has just as much voice in the public square as does anyone else. To treat people as things is both anti-christian and anti-democratic.
The last issue Jesus addresses in this morning’s Gospel is whether there are degrees of truth or not. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word truthiness, which was named the Word of the Year in 2006 by Merriam-Webster. Truthiness is a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. It appears every night on our TV screens, and every day in conversations private and public. It’s truth that we wish were true – like my father’s declarations about what black people are like – despite what the real facts may be. Jesus addresses this by instructing his followers not to swear – not swear as in say bad words, but to make a distinction between official truth, sworn on a Bible or on our mother’s grave or Scout’s Honor, and any other kind of truth. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No a No, because anything else comes from the evil one. Why? Because way back in the Garden of Eden, the snake was trying to convince Eve that God had different levels of truth: You will not die – God knows if you eat that fruit you will be like God, knowing good and evil. But Adam and Eve did die when they disobeyed – their communion with God and with each other died. It’s no accident that the first point of the Scout Law, on this Scout Sunday, is . . . trustworthy. Don’t tell the truth you wish were true – tell it like it is.
It’s ever so much easier to tell the truth we want to be true. It’s ever so much easier to treat people as things to be coveted and to be cast away. Telling the truth that is true may be simpler in the long run, but it’s usually ever so much harder. And being in a relationship with separate and unique individuals is incredibly harder than treating people as categories and objects. Following Jesus is hard work, requiring hard core faith. But Jesus treats every single one of us as absolutely unique and precious, and loves us in all our weirdness. If we’re going to follow Jesus, don’t we have to do the same?