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Speaking to the Soul: Fulfilling Vows

Speaking to the Soul: Fulfilling Vows

Week of 4 Easter, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)

Exodus 34:18-35

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13

Matthew 5:27-37

I wince every time today’s gospel recurs in the lectionaries of the Daily Office or the Eucharist. This gospel includes a firm teaching on divorce and a sweeping definition of adultery. According to this passage, all of the following people are guilty of adultery: Anyone who looks at a woman with lust, any woman whose husband has abandoned her through divorce (!), and any man who marries a divorced woman. Adulterers, all.

Reading this passage, I feel outrage on behalf of many deeply faithful and loving people who are re-married. I also feel indignant at the prospect that I could be guilty of “adultery” through no fault of my own if my husband happened to seek a divorce: “I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife . . . causes HER to commit adultery.” My beloved assures me that he has no intention of doing so, but that’s beside the point. In principle, I could become an adulterer without my consent!

In this passage, women are nothing but the objects of men’s desire, the victims of their current husband’s rejection, or the cause of their next husband’s sin. Yes, Jesus condemns the practice of husbands abandoning their wives, but this teaching still makes those wives bear the label “adultery,” along with their next husband if they should find one. It’s hard to imagine any lower opinion of women’s full dignity, moral agency, or relational capacities.

I’ve wrestled with this passage many, many times, and here’s what I’ve come up with this time. Today, I wonder if Christians have any business taking marriage vows at all. Marriages in the patriarchal and heteronormative setting of today’s gospel just seem to diminish the full personhood of women and to set people up for “adultery.” Perhaps there is an alternative to the vows and contracts that regulate human relationships.

In the last few verses of today’s gospel, Jesus tells the people, “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.” In place of swearing, Jesus teaches, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

These verses call us toward a model of holy living that is not about making vows and fulfilling them, but about giving an honest and clear “Yes” or “No” to all of life’s complexities and contingencies. It is the day-by-day, moment-by-moment “Yes” and “No” that shapes a life of faithfulness and self-giving love, rather than the vows that entrap and diminish the persons who have made them, and that set people up for the labels and burdens of sin. If today’s gospel hurts your soul as it does mine, perhaps we can search together for opportunities to give a welcoming “Yes” and a solid “No” to whatever we have to face.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as Priest Associate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and assists with adult formation and campus ministry at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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