Sermon on Jesus Rolling His Eyes (and also divorce)

2014-02-16 NBW Sermon<—–click here to listen along (sermons are spoken events. So much of the meaning comes from the hearing of it.)

Years ago there was a project undertaken by Bible scholars whereby they were trying to ascertain what was really knowable about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure.  The scholars would take the Gospels, verse by verse and vote as to which things they thought Jesus actually said and which they thought were made up later. They wanted to determine the historical accuracy of Jesus’ words and actions. Now, there was more to it and perhaps this is a legitimate academic endeavor –  it’s just not a question I personally find at all interesting.  I could care less what fancy Bible scholars say is more or less historically accurate when it comes to Jesus’ teachings.  What I would be game for, is if scholars started voting on which of Jesus teachings were more or less done with his eyes rolled.  I mean there are just some texts where I feel like I can almost hear the annoyance in his voice.  Like when on the way to Jerusalem, he tells his disciples that he is about to be betrayed and handed over to the authorities, and condemned, beaten and die and then after 3 days rise again and they are like, “so when you come into your kingdom will I be seated at your right hand or will it be Steve?” – you know the guy was like…really?

I mention this because I wonder if this section from the Sermon on the Mount didn’t have an undercurrent of “I can’t believe I even have to say this to you” to it.

But he does.  He does have to say these things to us. Because we, like those who first heard them, are a forgetful people.  We need to hear what it means to uphold the 2 commandments that matter the most:  Love the Lord your God and Love the neighbor as yourself.  Because we so easily get bogged down in details, we can fail to see the big picture.

A couple weeks ago we were studying the 10 commandments in the catechumante class.  The Thou Shalt Nots of the 10 commandments are pretty recognizable to even the least religious among us.  Growing up I was taught that the law – especially the Ten Commandments – are there because they are God’s prescription for our lives.  People would say that the word Bible stood for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Basically the importance of the Bible is that it gives us all the rules we have to keep so that we are right with God.  God gave us these rules (and a bunch of others that the church added along the way) and they are there because God loves you and wants you to be happy.

But now I see it differently. Now I think the law is less about God loves you and wants you to be happy and more about the fact that God loves your neighbor and wants to protect them from you. And God loves and wants to protect you in so far as you are also someone’s neighbor. That is to say, that this strange God we have who created this world, and spoke through fiery prophets and freed a people from slavery and gave them a law and said they were his…this same God who came to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and loved people so completely, this God is strange, but what God is not – is distant.  This God does not create the world, give us some rules and then leave us to it. Because what we see in the teachings and life of Jesus is that people matter. Human relationships matter to God.  The way we are treated matters to God. So some laws are established for that.

But Laws are made for us, not us for laws. That is to say, there is a spirit behind each law that at times trumps it’s letter. I know that may sound like slipping dangerously into moral relativism, but so be it.  Our obsession with moral absolutes comes from clinging to the letter of the law as though it can love us and save us when really that’s what Jesus is for.

And you know who got in trouble, like all the time, for breaking the letter of the law? Jesus. Hey Jesus, your disciples are not washing their hands.  Hey Jesus, why are you eating with sinners? Hey Jesus, we saw you heal a guy and it was the Sabbath. And as we see over and over again, Jesus had no patience for this. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath, he would say. And that usually shut them up.  You know, until the next time.

All of that is to say that: what Jesus seems to be doing in our text for today is reminding us of the spirit of the law so that we know how to love one another.  That insulting people and being mean to them may not be murder, but it certainly does not uphold their dignity.  And again, Jesus rolls his eyes and is like, “I can’t believe I even have to say this”

What Jesus seems to be doing here is reminding us of the spirit of the law so that we know how to love one another.  That sexting and flirting and lusting over someone who is not our spouse may not be technically committing adultery but it certainly does not uphold our dignity, or that of our spouse or the object of our lust.

Jesus seems to be unfairly raising the bar on us, but in reality he’s just insisting that we not do violence to each other through loopholes. That we not put our relationship with the law above our relationships with our neighbor. And if that seems harsh and unnecessarily strict, know that he says all of this so that violence is not done to you as well. God loves you and wants to protect you.

Which brings us finally to the dreaded divorce text. This week I asked for your stories about how this text has shown up in your lives and on two occasions, the responses caused me to tear up in public, which as I’ve mentioned before is not exactly my favorite thing.

Now, I really try to not yammer on and on about the historical reality in the 1st century. But what is important to understand is that at the time (if my memory of seminary serves), if a man divorced a woman it was often a death sentence. She relied on him for security and income.  It’s not like today when she could just go back to teaching or work in a shop to make her way.  She often would not be welcome back in her father’s home. So the reality of divorce for many women was that it sentenced them to a life of poverty and possibly begging or prostitution. So for Jesus to say, look, just providing a certificate does not get you off the hook, her dignity needs to be upheld – well, this was a way of saying that God loves you and your spouse and desires that cruelty and violence not be done to either of you. Jesus was wanting to protect women.

So, this week, as I read your stories, stories of being violently yelled at and slapped and choked and having church folk stand over you and say that God loves you only if you stay with the man who does this to you, when I read about another of you being a 24 year old woman who was literally abandoned by your husband and then how your church would no longer give you the Eucharist, when I heard of the shame felt by one of you as a divorced man who felt like he wore a scarlet letter D in church, when I heard of loveless marriages that went on for decades…I thought how the hell is it that the church can manage to take a text meant to protect people and make sure violence is not done to them, and then use this same text to do violence to so many for so long?

I don’t know what to say. I just know that it is real. And if Jesus rolled his eyes when having to re-orient his disciple’s understandings of things, I can only imagine his reaction to what has been done with his teachings about protecting people.

And so tonight, from this pulpit, and under the yoke of this stole and from the office of a clergy person and with whatever authority that still manages to hold in this world… I want to offer an apology. As a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ, please hear me say I am so sorry this happened.  If you are someone who has had violence; emotional, spiritual, physical or otherwise done to them in the name of Jesus Christ (of all names under heaven), if you have been shamed or excluded or denied what is only God’s to give, if you have been made to stay in a situation that denies your humanity or kills your soul because someone said that’s what God wants for you,… on behalf of the church, I apologize.

And let me say this one thing more: We do not serve a distant God, but one who actually cares about how you treat people and how you are treated. People matter. Relationships matter.  The diginity of human beings matters. May the church, of all institutions, uphold this truth and ask forgiveness when we do not.


About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at

  • local person

    Beautiful! I wish someone would apologize on behalf of the church to my 16 year old daughter who was kicked out of Youth Group for coming out. The Good News is that she didn’t translate this behaviour to Jesus kicking her out of the kingdom. The bad news is that she won’t darken the door of a church again.

    • Jennifer John

      I hope you can find a church that she will be welcome in. If my child were kicked out, i would leave and find a spiritual home that welcome us both. Love and peace to you both.

    • linsey

      As a Christian and a church member I am sorry this happened to your daughter and I’m so glad she is wise enough to know that is was not a reflection of the true Kingdom of God. I see it at my church too and I try to reach out personally to everyone who is treated this way. Bad theology is so hard to overcome. Sounds like you have a great daughter. Good job!

    • Emily Heitzman

      As a youth and children’s pastor, this breaks my heart. I apologize on behalf of the church for this horrendous and very hateful experience your daughter went through. My prayer for her is that she can find a youth ministry and youth pastor and/or a church or faith community that will love her completely for the beautiful person she was created to be.

  • MT

    Nadia, this is good. Thank you.

  • Rebecca

    I love this so much.

  • Ellen Witko

    Excellent! But did you really HAVE to diss the Jesus Seminar?

  • Heather Heywood

    ok, i read through the sermon before i listened to it, specifically because it’s about divorce, and frankly, that scared me. when i left my marriage to a man who was abusive and who cheated on me the whole time we were together… i was shunned. i was told i wasn’t “living in the redemptive power of the cross” because i refused to take him back. he stalked me, harassed me, threatened me, turned everyone against me, and i was shunned. old-school, 150-people-literally-turning-their-back-on-me-at-once shunned. so this sermon title scared the crap out of me.

    but i read it first, because i could stop if i needed to. i read it, because i didn’t want my kids to hear how awful a person their mother is before i had a chance to stop the track. i read it first, so that the words would have less power over me, and i could roll my eyes at you.

    and now, having only read it, i’m crying. blubbery, puffy-eyed, runny-nose crying. because this sermon helps. like, a lot. thank-you.

    • Danik Kooistra

      I’m with you on the last part, but not for the reasons in your first paragraph… it was because I felt ashamed, and even guilty to have made a vow before God, and then broke it to save my sanity. These words touched me like none ever have. I listened to this sermon a half hour ago and my eyes are still running. God be with you, Heather.

  • Chris

    I appreciate your conclusions and 90% of what you say here, but is it necessary to disparage scholars to say this? Anti-intellectualism is a major problem for the American church.

    • Wayne Speigle

      Agreed. I know dozens of Bible scholars and none of them are “fancy.”

  • Richard Williams

    The problem in abusive situations is that the church leaders should be stepping in and confronting the abuser. If they aren’t willing to do this it is because they lack guts and they should not be church leaders.

  • Emily Heitzman

    Thank you for this beautiful sermon that is too often not preached or even discussed in the Church (but rather frequently ignored).

    As someone who experienced this type of very painful “Bible-beating” (with this same passage, along with others) when I went through my divorce several years ago while in seminary, it makes me hopeful to see and hear pastors actually addressing these texts in healing ways. (The Bible-beating did not come from my fellow-seminarians or family: it was their support and love that helped me actually claim my own self worth and take the scary steps of going through with the divorce.) Unfortunately, there are many others who experience such “Bible-beating” who are not quite as lucky as I was to have such support.

    I’d like to add that abuse also often comes in non-physical forms, such as emotional abuse, which includes among other things: controlling, threats of abandonment, long silent treatments, isolating the spouse, belittling, “crazy” making of the spouse, etc. – (For more signs of emotional abuse, see:

    And in some cases, emotional abuse can be just as or even more damaging than other forms of abuse.

    Unfortunately, too often if folks within the Church community don’t see physical signs of abuse, they will condemn anyone for “leaving” a marriage – no matter what the situation is like behind closed doors – and will ignore any suggestions of such emotional abuse or neglect. And too often, victims of emotional abuse stay in their unhealthy and violent marriages because of this or because they don’t even know that their marriage is unhealthy.

    As pastors, people of faith, and as human beings, we must continue to stand up and speak out so that others may begin to recognize that God does not want them to be robbed of their humanity in these ways and so that they might be empowered to claim their own self worthiness of living healthy and holistic lives…

    Because this is what Jesus did and calls us to do.

    So thank you, thank you, thank you for speaking up!

  • Kari S

    I totally agree with Richard Williams – we need to put in place another of Jesus’ protective recommendations: “If your brother sins against you…” etc. My sister had a friend whose husband left her for another woman, and their church leaders told him he couldn’t be involved in church leadership any more; they all prayed for him to fully repent; and when he did come back, the leaders worked with both members of the couple to establish boundaries, guidelines and “hoops” for the husband to jump through before coming back to his family. They are happily married today, to the great relief and benefit of their children. That’s what Jesus was talkin’ about!

    That leads to the next point: divorce today hugely impacts the children, even if they can still eat. We must remember that when we counsel a couple, and do EVERYTHING we can to help them mend their relationship so they can protect their children from the damage of divorce.

    Not to minimize AT ALL the necessity of divorce when one partner is incorrigible or intransigent.

  • Steve31

    sodomy is a sin.

    • IllusionaryFuneral

      “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, an abundance of food and prosperous ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.”
      – Ezekiel 16:49

      • marty_jones

        Thank you for posting the Ezekiel quotation. I generally avoid the prophets, so it’s been a long time since I read Ezekiel. Not only is your response appropriate, it’s an interesting mental exercise to insert “America” for “Jerusalem” in the entire chapter…

    • FC

      I always find it amazing that no matter what is talked about in a religious context, someone always has to throw in anti-gay rocks and poo poo the whole discussion.
      Nadia Bolz Weber: “Now I’m going to make a flan.”
      Steve31: “Flan is probably what they ate in Sodom before God smote them.”

  • hillmad

    I have never heard these passages described more clearly or with more intelligence and compassion. Thanks, Pastor Nadia!

  • marty_jones

    I met a man recently, a man of sincere belief, who cannot believe in a God that would permit the evil that is in the world; specifically all of the evil that is done in the name of God. I told him that I have a hard time reconciling the idea that God would condemn people for Unbelief when it is precisely the behavior of those who act in His name that have caused the unbelief.
    “I can only imagine his reaction to what has been done with his teachings about protecting people…” One of my fears [Rom 8:1] is that when I stand before the Creator, I will have to answer for all of the injustice that is being done by those who represent my country as ‘created by God’; injustice I do little to stop. My tolerance by omission.
    Nadia- thank you for being willing to stand in a role that you had not asked for.

  • The_Friar

    I think what you said is beautiful, and I think that I agree with most of it; and at the very least it’s challenging and something to think about. I do think though that it gives a misconception about the Eucharist, and that the Catholic church (which is the only one that I know of that uses that term), prevents those who are divorced from receiving the Eucharist. This is not true. Any person who is divorced can receive the Eucharist. A woman/man who has divorced for whatever reason can and should still come forward. It is the person who is divorced AND remarried without an annulment that is not to come forward. This is because Catholics believe in marriage as a Sacrament. That’s an important distinction.

  • Yonah

    I commend your concern for hurting people.

    But, the discussion of Torah needs work.

    Here’s the problem. There was no settled law on divorce. That’s why it was a topic of debate. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he was being asked for his position over against any number of other positions.

    Another problem. The Pharisees are typically given a bum wrap. History is important. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were right in the middle of amending law to better the position of women and children in marriage matters.

    • IllusionaryFuneral

      Yeah, that’s something a lot of Christians don’t realize. The early writers used “Pharisee” (and later “Jew”) kind of like how contemporary left-wing, progressive Christians use the term “Evangelical” – they themselves may be “Evangelicals,” and they’re condemning the obnoxious vocal jackasses who have become the face of the movement. Paul apparently still considered himself a Pharisee after becoming a Christian, and I imagine no few of the early Jewish Christians were Pharisees and also still considered themselves to be such after joining up with this new Jesus movement.

      If I understand correctly, the Pharisees tended to be in favor of flexibility in regards to interpretation of the Torah, and focused more on the principles behind the laws rather than the laws themselves – a theme that repeatedly comes up in St. Paul’s works.

      The problem was that, much like how so many Christians miss the point of the Gospels and the Epistles and wrongly condemn any number of behaviors as “un-Christian” and “against Biblical principles” or “against what the Bible teaches”, so too did “the Pharisees” – that is, the jackasses in the Gospels – completely miss the overall point of the Law and the Prophets, and wrongly condemned any number of behaviors as “unlawful.”