Context Matters: In Poetry and Scripture

This is a sermon preached on February 12th, at St. Luke’s Bethesda. The text is Matthew 5: 21-37. If I were writing this today, I would add that this is the first time in recorded history that someone called for an end of victim blaming. But I hadn’t had adequate research time (and there’s a lot of recorded history) when I preached it. I’ve looked now, and truly believe this is the first time in recorded history someone spoke out against victim blaming. Even more reason that Jesus fellow was an okay guy!!!

 

Mary Oliver is an incredible American poet. One of my favorites. She has a very short poem that goes:

When we pray to love God perfectly,

Surely we do not mean only.

 

(Lord, see how well I have done.)

 

I love this poem. It’s beautiful. It’s short. Yet in conveys so much in those few lines. But it conveys so much more when we know that she wrote those words and read them at the memorial service for her partner of more than 30 years, Molly Malone Cook.

The context that words were written in matters. In poetry, the context of the author gives a richness, and adds layers that we cannot otherwise know or understand. And it’s crucially important in understanding what Jesus said. Even in something that seems as straightforward as the list of rules in the Sermon on the Mount.

Context is crucial to really understanding anything. The words of Scripture weren’t written in a vacuum. They were said (or written) to certain people, at a certain point in history, often in response to certain issues or questions. Knowing the surrounding circumstances, and understanding in modern terms the ancient meaning gives the same type of richness and depth of understanding that helps make Scripture come alive and be relevant in our lives today.

For example, the incredible resiliency, power, and intelligence of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson is absolutely lost if you are unfamiliar with the Civil Rights movement, and with the religious application of rules and status quo of NASA.

Without any background on how the AME Church was founded, or the context of the struggles Richard Allen went through, the tradition and history of all that is encompassed in that church is lost.

Frederick Douglas is just a man who rose above his circumstances, until you understand that his circumstances made it impossible for people of color to rise above. And he did it anyway. And helped others rise as well.

Context matters. It matters in poetry, it matters in life, and it matters in understanding Scripture.

Understanding what the words meant to those in the original intended audience gives life to these words. In incredible ways. The words of the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the section we’re going to talk about today, were revolutionary.

What Jesus was saying 2,000 years ago was that faith is manifested in actions. And our actions show our attitudes and belief in ways that words never could.

Often Jesus spoke in parables to explain his teaching. In the Gospel today he used another rhetorical tool, rephrasing. “You have heard that it was said…” Jesus is building on what he said earlier, that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill.” And he is offering to those gathered an explanations of the deeper meaning and significance of traditional Jewish teachings.

Don’t murder. But also, what’s happening in your heart matters. How you treat people matters. Reconciliation matters, especially with those who are the closest to you.

What really stood out to me as I read and reread these texts is the word lust. And it is here that I think the teaching of Christ is most applicable to us today.

“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.”

What a line. What a complicated line in modern Western society.

Just the word lust is complicated, kind of hard to pin down, and often used to attempt to manipulate and control people, men and women.

In these two short verses Jesus is doing something that is utterly radical in modern western society, and would have been a call to drastic and sweeping change in Ancient Palestine.

Jesus is speaking out against victim blaming.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Women at the time were chattels. They were property. With no or incredibly few rights of their own; often talked about in the same sentences as land and cows. To sleep with another man’s wife was to commit a property crime against another man. The woman’s rights were not considered. If it was consensual was not important. Only that one man was violating another man’s property.

It would appear that what Jesus is saying is that to even look at another man’s wife is to violate his property. An argument could be made for that. But Jesus is taking a step beyond that in this prohibition.

Jesus is saying that no one, specifically no woman, is a object. AND, men, not women, are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. Think about all the times women are blamed for being raped because of how they dress, or how much they have to drink. Women blamed for not leaving an abusive relationship, because leaving is so easy. Eve, blamed for the downfall of humanity because she made Adam eat the fruit. Bathsheba, enticed and seduced David, when in fact he kidnapped and raped her.

What Jesus is telling us in this passage is that men, NOT women, are responsible for their thoughts and actions.

Women, the focus of those thoughts and actions. Women, the victims. They are not to blame. Women are more than objects for male desire. Jesus called for a seismic shift in our understanding of who we are as a people of God, when he commanded men to be responsible for their thoughts, and to treat everyone as a fellow human being, worthy of respect.

As we put this in modern times, it is easy to see that the prohibition against victim blaming, and against treating women as sex objects has utterly failed.

At it has failed for a long time. We’re just talking about it now.

This is an incredibly delicate topic. Instead of delving into it fully, I would like to invite you all into conversation with one another. This is very much still an issue today. It was a huge topic of conversation in the election. It still deserves conversation and attention.

But so does what Jesus commanded us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. We could have a long discourse on why women are still treated as objects. On why misogyny is still part of the social and political landscape.  Perhaps not everyone sees it that way; the disconnect between those who do and those who don’t needs to be bridged.  We need to talk.  Talk to each other.  Talk to the clergy.  Talk with a neighborhood or a friend you trust. Most especially talk with a woman you trust.  Hear her experience and the slights she’s endured along the way.

Ask questions. Understand the context of the life of your neighbor. It helps us to understand one another, and ourselves better.

And it helps us to more fully understand what comes next in Jesus’ sermon. He doesn’t actually want us to pluck out our eye or chop off a hand. At least, I don’t think he does. Jesus wants us to be responsible for ourselves and our actions. He wants us to remember and ingrain it into the fiber of our very being, that our faith is manifested in our actions.

We show who and what we are by what we do. So we must be cognizant, always of what we do. This begins by being in control of our thoughts, since it is in our thoughts that our actions take shape. My favorite line from Harry Potter is applicable here, Dumbledore looks at Harry and says: “of course it’s happening in your head Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

The context of that quote is also quite important, but in case everyone hasn’t read the story, I won’t go into detail. But I think Jesus would agree with Dumbledore. What happens in our heads often becomes real. It is up to us to be mindful of what happens in our minds. It is up to us who are able to be in control of our actions.

When we look at anything, understanding where and what those words come from offers us a deeper and more rich understanding of those words. But it requires us to make effort. It takes effort to understand what Jesus was really getting at. But the fullness, richness, and applicability of words taught 2,000 years ago becomes so apparent when we do just that.

Scripture. Life. Relationship. Poetry. Understanding matters.

Take the effort. Understand. We will all be better, better humans, better partners, better friends, and better Christians if we do.

Amen

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