The school of Shammai says: -- “A man should not divorce his wife, except where he has found in her a case for scandal, as it is said: -- ‘...because he has found in her a scandalous thing’” (Deut 24:1).
But the school of Hillel says: -- “(He may divorce his wife),
even if she has burned his supper, as it is said: -- ‘...because he has found in her a scandalous thing’” (Deut 24:1).
Rabbi Aqiba says: -- “(He may divorce his wife), even if he has found another more becoming than she, as it is said: -- ‘and if she does not find favor in your eyes’” (Deut 24:1)
This is a quotation from one of the books of oral tradition which are part of the Talmudic literature of the Jewish faith as it was evolving just at the time that Jesus Christ lived and preached in ancient Judea. I have mentioned it for one reason this morning which is to illustrate the context in which Jesus uttered the words of the Sermon on the Mount which we read from Matthew this morning – most particularly Jesus’ words on Divorce. “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. (Matthew 5:31,32)
This portion of the Sermon on the Mount has got some hard sayings in it – about anger and adultery and swearing oaths…sayings which on the face of them seem quite rigid and therefore tend to play into the notion that the heart of the scripture is a bunch of rules. But, in the light of the Rabbi’s position, Jesus’ words take on a much broader meaning. A new restricting of divorce is introduced as a means for protecting not only marriage, but more directly, the rights and wellbeing of both partners in a marriage. There are consequences taken into account for both parties – not just one. In the rabbinic view it’s a win/lose situation where the husband always seemed to win. Jesus understood that life in relationship is more complex than that – that there are other viewpoints to consider. Although Jesus’ view of marriage seems arcane in today’s context, it was revolutionary in his own day.
Years ago, in the mid 19th century a man named Milton Bradley invented and marketed a board game called The Game of Life. In that first incarnation, each player began at birth and moved through a variety of ethical decisions as part of the game, with the reward of a long, happy life coming to the player who made the best decisions and had the least unexpected interruptions (such as illness or accident or bear attack) along the way. Bradley’s game rewards the virtues that lead to wealth and success. The good squares are honesty, bravery and perseverance. The bad squares are poverty, idleness, and disgrace. The person who wins is the one who gets to happy old age first. The Game of Life was reissued in the 1960’s and totally changed. The new goal was, plain and simply, to get rich. The person with the most money at the end wins.
Played as a competition, the game of life is a zero-sum game. You win some moves and lose some moves, but in the end there is always a big winner.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a scholar in Jewish Mysticism, when speaking on a radio program, took on the idea of life as a game finding commonalities within some of the newer computer “games” that really have no winners or losers and can be played for weeks on end. “Real life doesn’t have a start box – that is its first rule. It just happens to start when you come to the realization that you are playing. You have choices to make and places to go. The second rule is like it; in real life, you cannot decide when to stop – it’ll happen when it happens.
“The third rule—just to keep you on your toes—is that each player is issued apparently random, undeserved gifts and handicaps throughout the progress of the game. Figuring out why you got the combination package you did transforms all disabilities into gifts, just as refusing to figure out why you were issued what you received, transforms all gifts into disabilities. My father [Kushner says] used to say that all men are not created equal. Some get dealt a full house; others, a pair of twos. The question therefore is not whether you deserve the hand you were dealt, but how you choose to play it.”
That is the very contemporary aspect of this morning’s lesson which makes it of great interest to me – a part of the Sermon on the Mount which is often skipped over. Jesus is talking about conflict with another – “if your brother or sister has something against you, first go to your brother [before you go to the altar to worship] and reconcile…” then come to God in prayer. If you owe another, there is more to be lost than just your debt, if you fail to pay up. You risk your life, because life is not a matter of who wins – who has the most. Life is relationships that you cannot just win or lose. Life is relationships that bind us to one another and to God. The ways in which we relate to our brother or sister, our neighbor or our friend, affect our relationship to God.
Downplayed – or just plain ignored by those who would be Soldiers for Christ or Jihadists for Allah or any other kind of zero-sum thinking crusader who is out to win at all costs, is this more nuanced understanding of what the Lord requires of us. Not only does God require mercy and justice, which Jesus celebrates in the Beatitudes just a few verses before this morning’s reading from Matthew, God requires reconciliation.
Not because God says it, but because it just makes sense in our modern world, statesmen are beginning to understand the importance of non-zero-sum solutions to world issues. In a major speech several years ago, Former President Clinton noted, “The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions. That is, win–win solutions instead of win–lose solutions.... Because we find as our interdependence increases that, on the whole, we do better when other people do better as well — so we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accommodate each other...”
The God of Abraham is not always known as a win-win kind of God; there are plenty of episodes in the Old Testament in which God orders Israel to totally annihilate an enemy until nothing is left of them. But there are other voices, other themes which are also introduced early on in the story of the people of God. This morning’s reading from Deuteronomy is a good example – it describes the moment when Moses, who has been denied entry into the Promised Land, is taking he leave of the people. He calls “heaven and earth to witness this day” as he imparts a final word of wisdom to those who have wandered with him through the wilderness. Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
A friend and colleague of mine when I lived and worked in New Jersey is now a professor of preaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary. She describes this moment in Deuteronomy as follows:
This is life with a capital “L,” Deuteronomy seems to say. It is the kind of life where God is not skulking off to the side of the screen or flitting in the margin of consciousness. In this kind of life God is not available only in peripheral vision, not next to or behind you on the river banks, but is standing smack in front of you in the middle of the white water, arms extended. It’s the kind of life you enter into when you decide that there is no father figure on his way to rescue you, there is no mythical hero in the wings, no experienced old head who will come and solve the problem. There is only you and God eyeball-to-eyeball. This is the kind of life you find when you find God dead center and filling the screen—not in your weakness but in your strength, not in your suffering but in your life.
Your choices will always make a difference – your decisions for mercy or for revenge; for winning by another’s loss – instead of seeking the more difficult, yet more rewarding option of mutuality are not just between you and your brother or sister, they are between you and God. The God of Moses is the God who is in the midst of us – it is the God of Jesus who offers a vision of life where living is not just a matter of survival but is found in joy of being in community – building, creating, enjoying together.
In the Northumbrian region of England – just a bit below Scotland, the local church clings to ancient practices. In worship they gather to sing and pray in the rhythmic cadences of Celtic prayer. They gather to tell stories, the stories of Scripture seen through the lenses of their own lives and their own stories. And when they gather to tell these stories, they call their place of gathering “a telling place” where heaven and earth meet, and where assumed truths are challenged.
They share prayers and songs and stories, and they also share vows, vows they have created in response to their hearing of the beatitudes of Jesus and in answer to their question “How then shall we live?” They have only two vows, the vow of availability and the vow of vulnerability. They promise to remain available to God and to others; and they promise to be vulnerable before God and vulnerable before others.
“Intentional vulnerability is expressed through being teachable in the discipline of prayer, saturation in the Scriptures and being accountable to one another. It also means entering the telling place…[with honesty about weakness or failures] affirming that relationships matter more than reputation.”
Living with the Kingdom vision matters more than winning or losing….being always right or coming out on top. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount offers a new way of understanding how to live as people of the Kingdom of God. Our concern is not only for the laws of God, but also how our actions, words, and feelings affect others. With Jesus at the center of our lives it is possible to have the power to relate to others with the same grace that has been extended to us through Jesus. A central relationship with Christ allows us to deal with such troubling issues such as anger, lust, divorce, and oath-taking. We do not ignore these realities, nor do we paper them over. Instead, it is only when we see each other all as children of God, and extend to them the same grace that God extends to us, that we are being truly faithful.
The game of life is not a zero sum game – it is a game with no losers for all who truly Choose Life.