Fulfilling the Law – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageThe Law of Moses, the Jewish Law is contained in the first 5 books of the Hebrew bible and it’s both detailed and comprehensive.  Some of the detail is quite extraordinary and suggests that the Israelites saw their God as above all a God of control.  This is Leviticus chapter 11 verse 20:  You may eat among all the [b]winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. 22 These of them you may eat: the locust , and the devastating locust,  the cricket, and the grasshopper. 23 But all other [c]winged insects which are four-footed are detestable to you.  The passage which was part of this morning’s lectionary is much more of a broad sweep, a comprehensive way of living.  Keep God’s commandments, stay faithful to the monotheistic tradition  you have inherited and you will enjoy the material rewards that God has in store for those who obey him.  

The Law breaks down roughly into 3 parts, the ceremonial, the civil  and the moral law, though sometimes there are overlaps when a particular section is relevant to more than 1 area.  When you build a new house you are to give your roof a parapet, then your house will not incur blood vengeance through anyone falling from it.  This law emphasises our moral duty of care for each other’s safety.  It also contains a practical warning about the legal repercussions  of committing a criminal act.  A priest may not eat an animal that has died a natural death or been savaged by wild beasts for he would contract uncleanness from it.  This may be a simple matter of hygiene and the avoidance of disease but it’s also part of the purification that must underpin the life of a priest involved in the sacred  rituals.  

The Law was made for a people living  in the Bronze Age, on the edge of history,  groups of nomadic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were beginning to settle in a land and make it their own, having displaced  its former owners, the Canaanites.  They were surrounded by peoples who worshipped many gods, notably Baal and in order to keep them faithful to their one true God, Yahweh, they needed the Law to cover every eventuality.  It’s a Law of threats and promise – the law-abiding will enjoy material prosperity;  the lawless will feel the weight of God’s anger.   It seems a vast volume but of course compared to the law of any Western country, it’s a pamphlet.

The gospel passage  reminds us that although Jesus was brought up to obey the Law, he saw the need to interpret it for his generation.  Jesus moved from a prohibition  law to a much more positive  sense that it must be  supportive of men and women who are trying to act in a just, loving, sensitive way.  He  realised the importance of  obeying  the spirit of the law, sometimes instead of, sometimes as well as the letter.  In fact, in the passsage which follows our gospel reading, he goes much further than the demands of the Law – 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. And he antagonised the Law-abiding Jews by occasionally rejecting it altogether, as when he ridiculed their anxiety about plucking ears of corn on a walk on the Sabbath.  He was not afraid to  overturn the Law.  In Deuteronomy the Law is clear: 18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then [they]shall ……bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.  In Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son,  the rebellious young man who had committed every kind of social sin, eventually returned to his father’s house in destitution and  despair.  His father saw him coming from a great distance and abandoned what he was doing, abandoned his dignity and the constraints of old age and ran out to meet his son and bring him home to a celebration.  

I wish the church could find a united prophetic voice to interpret for our age what the Law says about the materialism that is affecting and infecting our society, afflicting  rich and poor, and which sociologists define as a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project.   In chapter 3 of the epistle to the Corinthians St Paul  expresses his  regret at  the fact that he has been unable to speak to them as people of the spirit.  Paul would be the last man to deny the importance of the Law.  Over and over again he tells the churches he writes to that inevitably they live in the material world.  (Indeed when Jesus celebrated the meal we know as the last supper, he was enshrining the principle that we will meet him in bread and wine, in  shared food.)  But, Paul says, in the last instance the values that we must live by are moral, spiritual, metaphysical, beyond the physical.  

The 10th commandment reads: you shall not covet your neighbour’s house, his wife, his manservant or maidservant, his ox, his ass, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.  Materialism is the direct opposite of the 10th commandment.  Materialism says you can’t be happy, you can’t have peace of mind,  unless your status, your dignity, your  sense of your own identity are represented in the material possessions you are surrounded with.  However,  researchers, drawing on data available since the 1980s, have shown that as people become more materialistic, their well being as it is reflected in good relationships, sense of purpose, autonomy, diminishes.  They ranked the importance of different goals – job, money, social standing on one side against self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other and found that the happier people were those who were less materialistic.  

We are mourning the deaths of 2 women who were models of Christian living in this church..  Stella Grosse and Jean Bennett lived by moral principles of giving – of their time, their energy, their money, their talents and their wisdom, wisdom which was filtered through long lives of varied experience, not always blissfully happy but always used to inform their faith and support  their way of life.  They had comfortable homes but were not defined by their possessions.  They mixed easily with a wide range of people and were not seduced by wealth or privilege.  

I’m not advocating an abandonment of all the material pleasures of life.  But I’m saying that the Jesus message is clear.  If our treasures are the ones we  lay up for ourselves  on earth, we  must be ready to accept their transitoriness.   And we need to remember the onus on us to live more simply so that others may simply live.  

When a few of us questionned members of our parish a few months ago about what they wanted from us as a church, many responded by expressing their yearning for a greater sense of community.  Materialism creates social atomisation.  For most of my lifetime we in the West  have been pursuing an economic model based on perpetual growth.  And it has had its effect in greater prosperity for a significant mass of the people.  But it has also fostered an aggressive individualism which sets us apart from each other.  Boris Johnson was characteristically straightforward about this in a lecture he gave before Christmas.  He said that he didn’t believe that economic equality is possible , (and few of us would disagree with that on the present evidence).  He went on: Indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy, …….that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.  

I listened to the radio news and I scanned the newspaper but couldn’t find  a speech putting  the church’s case for another world view.  

I suspect that few of us in this church would be happy with the idea that the main fact of our identity is that we are consumers.  Somehow we have to find a way of communicating to those outside  that worldly ambition and  material aspiration are not  a formula for happiness or ultimate fulfilment.

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