Laying Down the Law

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany                  February 12, 2017

Two of our readings share a theme: both the OT and the Gospel reading have to do with the Law, the Old Testament law given to Israel, and what it means.

First of all, from the book of Deuteronomy. Our reading comes from the end of the book, and so it is at the end of all five books of the Law. It is the final conclusion, a passage that sums up all that has gone before, the 613 commandments of the Torah. The passage is told as Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel, although it was actually written centuries after Moses’ death.

The message Moses has to say about the commandments is very simple: in giving the Law to Israel, God is giving them a simple choice. They may choose to obey the commandments, or not. And that choice is a choice between life and death: following the commandments will lead to life and prosperity, disobeying them will lead to death and ruin.

Now I suppose you can take this two ways. You could hear it as a judgemental and tyrannical God who has set up all these arbitrary commandments for us to follow, and who threatens dire punishment if we disobey. Christians have often read it this way, because it makes us feel superior to the Jews: they believe in this legalistic and vindictive God, whereas we believe in a God of love, and so we can ignore most of the commandments.

But I think this approach just shows how little we understand the law of Israel. Because at their heart these laws are not arbitrary. Sure, some of them may seem arbitrary to us, laws about kosher and other customs we don’t follow; but the core of the laws, perhaps far more than we realize, are about justice and mercy. This complex network of commandments is a blueprint for a just, humane, and healthy society. So when he talks about a choice between life and death, this isn’t about a threat – it’s about the inevitable consequences of choosing not to live by societal norms of decency and humanity. We are to understand these laws not as an imposition, but as a gracious gift of God: God has shown us how to live together as a healthy society. It is a divine social contract. A society that ignores justice and concern for its weakest members is a society that has no future – this is a message the prophets hammered home again and again. I wonder if this has anything to say to us today?

And then we have Jesus speaking about the Law in the sermon on the Mount. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” And then he proceeds, in a number of examples, to show what he means by fulfilling the Law: it is a matter of going beyond just literally following the commandments, and looking to the intention behind it.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder” – but I say to you, whoever speaks in anger is already guilty. ‘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 is already guilty. Jesus is giving us a radical version of the law, one where it is not enough just to follow the commandments in our actions – our very thoughts and words and intentions count as well.

Which is why Jesus’s take on the law seems like a very tall order. Who among us has not gotten angry and said some harsh words about others? Who has not looked at a woman or a man with shall we say interested admiration? Already it seems we have failed. Jesus’s standards are way too high for us to live up to.

And so here too the church has tended to ignore Jesus’s teaching. In the Middle Ages, the idea developed that he was given special advice for people who wanted to be particularly holy, chiefly monks and nuns, while for the vast rank and file of Christians it is sufficient if we keep the Ten Commandments and don’t actually murder each other.

Now, while I have never believed that – I don’t see any evidence that Jesus was thinking about monks and nuns, his concern was for ordinary people – I must confess that I have generally thought that he is setting an unrealistic standard here, that this teaching can’t be taken quite so literally. But I’m not so sure anymore.

What if Jesus also understands the commandments not as things we have to get right to show our obedience to a judgemental God, but as a social contract, as guidelines for what healthy human relationships look like. What if it is not about getting it perfect, so that if we fall down too often we just give up.

Perhaps we should be asking the question the other way around: not, “can I get a perfect score on keeping the commandments”, but “what would the world look like where these commandments didn’t matter?”

So Jesus tells us not only should we not murder, but we shouldn’t speak harsh words in anger. So imagine a world without this commandment, a world where it’s okay to say anything you feel like, because hey, you haven’t actually killed anyone. Well, we don’t have to imagine it, because it already exists. It is called the internet. Under the cover of anonymity, and without having to actually look someone in the face and treat them like a real human being, people spew the most remarkable ugly hatred. Neo-Nazi groups have apparently increased 600% in recent years – cowards who would not have the courage or the shamelessness to say racist things in real life are flocking to claim their right to “free speech”. And it’s not just the Nazis. I make the mistake this week of doing something I never do – reading the comments section on a church website about a controversial matter. It is so depressing, reading supposedly upstanding Christians talk about their fellow Christians, proving by their passionate logical argumentation that this is not just someone I happen to disagree with, but this is someone who is fundamentally dishonest and evil and wants to destroy the church. We seem to assume that because it is only the internet, and it is only words, it doesn’t matter. But I have to ask the old-fashioned question: when people indulge in this kind of hatred, what are they doing to their immortal soul?

And unfortunately it’s not just words, it doesn’t always stay as just words. We are already seeing how this atmosphere of resentment and aggression is spilling into our politics and poisoning our public life. Ask the thousands of Muslims detained at American airports a couple of weeks back, or the thousands of Mexican Americans being rounded up this week after 20 years of working dirty thankless jobs in the US – ask them if these are just words.

Or ask the Muslims of Quebec City. As an imam pointed out at the funeral last week, there was one more victim besides the six murdered men and their families, a victim no one was talking about: the young man who committed this terrible crime. He was the victim of words, of hate speech he read and passed on on the internet, of the seductive thrill of transgressing decency and giving one’s worst impulses free rein. In some ways he is most to be pitied: he lost not only his life, but his very soul.

So yes, words and attitudes matter, they matter a lot. What clearer illustration do we need of Jesus’s teaching that anger and harsh words and hatred put us on the same path that leads to murder? All of us take the first step from time to time, we get angry and mutter “what a bloody fool” under our breath. Big deal. Except, Jesus reminds us, it’s not okay. Because if we think it’s okay, then it’s easy to take the second step, to dwell on our resentment, to continue to paint in our minds a picture of how horrible this person is. And suddenly we are several more steps down the seductive path of nurturing our hatred – a path that has murder as its final destination, even if few of us take it that far.

The same logic applies to Jesus’s words about looking with lust and adultery. Again, if we take this too literally, it can seem to suggest that all sexual interest interest, all flirtation, is evil. And so the church has covered healthy sexuality with a coat of shame. But I think there is a distinction between admiring a woman or a man, and giving way to lustful fantasies. The distinction may be too subtle for us men, but I suspect most of you women know the clear difference between an admiring look that makes you feel appreciated and good about yourself, and a creepy one that makes you feel like a piece of meat.

It is all very natural and healthy to have a lively interest in admiring the grace and beauty of others. But again, let’s ask the question the other way around: what would a world look like where it didn’t matter at all, where it is okay to indulge fully our lustful thoughts. Well, again, we don’t have to look far: it is the world of pornography, on the internet, but also spilling over into fashion magazines and celebrity culture. It is a world that ultimately degrades both men and women, but particularly women, reducing them to objects of the male ego. It is a world that reduces the whole wonderful complexity of human beings to the single category of sex appeal. For that reason, it is a nightmarishly boring world.

And the same principle can be applied to Jesus’s words about divorce. They sound harsh to our ears, if we take them as an absolute commandment that must not be broken. Because we know that marriages fail, tragically; and we know also that second marriages can succeed, and be blessed by God to be all that marriage is supposed to be. But again, let’s ask the question the other way around: what would a world look like where divorce didn’t matter at all. It’s not a theoretical question: one of the prominent rabbis of Jesus’s day taught that a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner. That is the background of Jesus’s teaching, the prospect of a world where divorce means nothing, and so marriage means nothing. We see it today in the world of celebrity marriages, the endless cycle of weddings and break-ups we read about in the supermarket line-up. Except, of course, for real people it isn’t that glamorous. It is a world of feckless men, impoverished and hopeless women, damaged kids.

You have heard it said “do not murder”, “do not commit adultery”, “do not steal”, do not do evil deeds. But Jesus says to us, do not think it is only our acts and deeds that matter. Do not think that our words and attitudes are unimportant, that it is okay to think and say whatever we feel like, because it’s a free country and we’re not actually hurting anyone. Our words and our attitudes shape our relationships: they can build up or tear down networks of trust and caring with our fellow human beings. They form the necessary social contract, the framework in which we can flourish as human beings.

In this society of ours, where so many people foolishly are ready to throw that framework of decency out the window, in order to indulge their resentments or their appetites or their greed, it is so important for us to cultivate the habits of kind thoughts and kind words towards one another. It may seem weak or insignificant in the grand scheme of our noisy world; but it may be the most important work we have to do, our own witness of being salt and light to the world around us.