In his book Heretic, the Scottish minister Peter Cameron records that, during his time as Principal of St Andrews College in Sydney, he fell into a conversation with the Principals of other university colleges from around Australia, most of whom complained bitterly about the behaviour of the students whom they had taken on as boarders. One of the Principals from an all-male college, however, boasted that he had no such problems, because he had laid down three strict and vigorously enforced rules: an early curfew; no female visitors, and no alcohol. In other words, no wine, women, or song.
Cameron himself rejected such an approach, largely because it seemed to him to amount to a denial of life. From his point of view, university was in many respects the last opportunity young people had to be free from the burdens and responsibilities of mature adult life, so imposing such strict rules was almost certain to invite the kind of undergraduate rebellion that was sure to do more harm than good. Cameron’s own view was that university was one of the places where young people learned what he called the “art of life”: that is, learning how to maturely and responsibly approach issues such as wine, women, and song. And that in turn necessitated a certain degree of latitude, a space in which young people could learn, through making mistakes and accepting responsibility for their actions, how to respect not only others, but themselves also.
This episode from Cameron’s life seems to me to nicely illustrate the dilemma which Christians often face when confronted with Jesus’ moral teachings. Are we to see such teachings as prohibitions against certain kinds of behaviour; or was Jesus in fact alerting us to a deeper truth about our nature as human beings, a truth that lies not in prohibitions, but in our relationships and the foundations on which they are constructed?
Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel contains a series of moral teachings, each one of which begins with Jesus saying “You have heard it said”, and then responding with “But I tell you”. And that structure in itself tells us something about what Jesus is attempting to do through these teachings. What he is not trying to do is confirm cultural or social or historically traditional understandings of human behaviour. Rather, through these teachings, Jesus is attempting to strip away all the conventions and prejudices and misunderstandings which humans have accumulated over time, and take us back to the very foundations of our existence, foundations that rest of our status as created beings.
In other words, because we are created beings, made in the image and likeness of a God who is personal, relational, and loving, that tells us something about the essential nature of our creaturely existence: that we were created to be personal and relational and loving – in our dealings with God, ourselves, and one another. So in this “You have heard it said, but I tell you” structure, Jesus is saying, in effect: forget convention, forget prejudice, forget society – go back to the foundations and remember the basis upon which you exist, the purpose for which you were created.
And we see that injunction in Jesus’ teaching about anger. Jesus takes the prohibition against murder and extends it to anger and insult and abuse. And he does this because he is not merely saying all these things are morally wrong; he is saying that all these things degrade our humanity. When we murder, we inflict the ultimate form of degradation, an irretrievable breach in the flow of creation; and we degrade ourselves, becoming an instrument, not of life, but of death. And when we nurse our anger and refuse to be reconciled, and indulge in abuse and insult, we degrade both the victim of our wrath and ourselves – for the very reason that we have broken away from the foundation of love and relationality that is the basis of our existence.
And that is why Jesus talks about leaving your gift on the altar and being reconciled with the person with whom you are angry. Because whenever we degrade someone, whenever we degrade ourselves, we create a breach that degrades our relationship with God. Which isn’t to say that God turns away from us and refuses to have anything to do with us; rather, that by our behaviour and attitude, we have created a barrier between ourselves and God, a barrier that is our very degradation of ourselves and others. So until that barrier is removed through reconciliation, our relationship with God is not what it should be; not because God wills it, but because we have made it so.
And that is why Jesus talks about adultery, and takes the prohibition against adultery and extends it to looking on another person with lust. Which isn’t to say that every time we are walking down the street and meet someone we find attractive and give that person a second look because we do find them attractive – that doesn’t mean we are guilty of the sin of lust. If that were true, I would be guilty of the sin of lust every time Nigella Lawson appeared on television! Rather, what Jesus is talking about is our attitude – namely, the attitude that reduces other people to a means to an end, that dehumanises and objectifies them so that they are no longer human and are nothing more than a vehicle for our selfishness and ego. Lust, in this context, is not attraction or even desire; it is, in fact, a form of idolatry. It is the worship of our own selfishness to the exclusion of all other considerations; and, most importantly, to the exclusion of the dignity of others, and of the dignity of our own humanity.
In other words, through the example of lust, Jesus is demonstrating how idolatry degrades our humanity and the humanity of others. When we make an idol of something, when we put it on a pedestal and make it the sole focus of our existence, then we forget that one of the bases of our humanity is selflessness not selfishness. In order to be personal and relational and loving, we need to give of ourselves, not accumulate for ourselves. Relationships that are based on what we get out of them are, ultimately, not relationships; they are a form of exploitation, arising from the idolatry of selfishness. Which isn’t to say that humans ought not come together for the sake of common interest, or in order to exchange benefits; rather, we must remember that these must always be secondary considerations, and that the primary purpose must always be the relationship upon which our dignity as human beings is founded. Where the relationship is damaged, so our humanity is damaged; where the relationship is degraded, so our humanity is degraded.
And that truth lies at the core of Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Because in the society of Jesus’ time, marriage was frequently used – by men – as a means to an end, as a way of gaining power, wealth, and influence. In other words, marriage wasn’t about relationship and the enhancing of human dignity; it was about the way it could be exploited for ulterior motives. And one of the side effects of that was that once the marriage had served its purpose or outlived its usefulness, women were often placed in an invidious position. They were either neglected or abused in marriage, or, through divorce, thrown into economic poverty and social exclusion.
In other words, in this teaching about divorce, Jesus isn’t actually stating whether or not divorce is permissible, and the circumstances under which it could occur; rather, Jesus is condemning the abuse of marriage for ulterior motives, an abuse that in turn resulted in divorces that were themselves abusive and contracted for the sake of personal convenience. Jesus’ concern here is with the corruption of marriage by cynical pragmatism; he is concerned with the damage to human relationships which it produces; and he is concerned with the victims of such marriages being degraded and robbed of their human dignity. And that is a concern that is still relevant in our modern age of celebrity marriage, of marriages of convenience and economic alliance. Because what is at stake is not the benefits that are to be gained from such marriages; what is at stake is the very foundation of our humanity, whether or not we are fulfilling the loving, relational, and personal imperative upon which our very dignity as creaturely beings depends.
So, in fact, far from being a series of wowserish prohibitions saying “you shalt not, you shalt not, you shalt not”, these moral teachings are, in fact, instructions about how we can embrace life; a life built, not on our own selfishness, but upon our relationships – with others, with ourselves, and, ultimately, with God. Because it is upon relationships that we stand or fall as human beings; enhanced relationships lead to enhanced life; degraded relationships lead to death-in-life. And we may be assured that, unlike the college Principal who sternly ordered no wine, women, or song, God will, in fact, give us more than enough latitude to grow and learn, to embrace the fullness and richness of life, and become what we ultimately are: loving and relational beings made in the image of a loving and relational God.