Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's against the Law!

Matthew 5.21-37

How do you feel when someone says to you "It's against the Law"?  Its one of those phrases which tends to stop most of us in our tracks.  It happens around me all the time.  Its usually one of the parish wardens who are desperately trying to prevent me from carrying out my latest cunning plan to improve one of the churches.  I'll say something like "Lets paint the roof pink - that'll make people notice the church!"  And Peter will say..."You can't...its against the law".  I'll say "let's open a pub in the basement" - and Phil or Cliff will say "You can't...its against the Law!  Those few words are enough to strike fear into the heart of any adventurous vicar.  And they stop many of us from doing the mad things which sometimes cross our minds.  But there's something a bit strange about Law...

As most of you know, for the last couple of years we had the pleasure of hosting a canon lawyer in our house - Joseph, from Ghana.  Joseph taught me a very important lesson about law.  He taught me that in order to have effect, laws must have the consent of the people.  In other words, its no good trying to make a law which the majority of people won't simply cannot be enforced for long, because people will either ignore it, or resist it.

We saw a very good example of that during the last week in Egypt.  In his desperate attempt to cling on to his power, the President of Egypt tried to tell his protesting population that the Constitution of the country meant that he had to stay in power until a new Government could be elected.  He claimed that the 'State of Emergency' which had been in place for the last 30 years gave him the right to stay on. The people refused to agree...and carried on protesting in vast numbers, until Mr Mubarak eventually had to give into the pressure, and resign.  We've seen it in our own life-times, when the Poll-Tax Riots of the 1980s forced the Government of the UK to get rid of an unpopular law.

But we need laws, don't we?  Laws help us to govern ourselves...and to control the excesses of those who would naturally want to walk all over other people.  This has always been the case...right back to the beginning of recorded history.  Then, as Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, the Bible tells us that God saw the need for laws...laws to govern the people's behaviour towards God, and towards each other.  Through Moses the Lawgiver, God established a system of codes and rules which would help the people to live together in relative peace and harmony.

We know those laws as the ten commandments - but there were many more subsidiary laws too.  Well over 600 of them - dealing with all aspects of life for people who lived in a rather more simple time than us.  There were laws about food, laws about what to do with murderers, laws about religious duties and ceremonies.  Some of those laws seem, to us, to be somewhat draconian...or just plain weird.  For example, did you know that according to Leviticus 19.19, you should not wear any clothing which is woven of two kinds of material?  So, anyone here who is wearing a cotton/wool blend, should take it off! What about anyone wearing poly-cotton underwear?  Oh dear?

Here's another one which makes me smile:  Leviticus 19:32 says that we should all rise in the presence of the aged.  So next time an older person than you walks into a room, I expect to see you all standing up!  That's going to make for an interesting time!  I foresee a lot of bobbing up and down as we all try to work out who is the oldest person here!

By the time Jesus was walking on the earth, the 600 or so laws of Moses had been expanded into thousands of little rules and laws.  That's what lawyers like to do...keep on making more laws for every conceivable situation.  As a result, lawyers tend not to be the most popular people in some societies...and there's quite a few cruel jokes around.  Like...why did God invent snakes before Lawyers?  To practice.  And...what do you call 5000 lawyers dead at the bottom of the ocean?  A good start.

In response to this overwhelming body of tiny laws...many of which were just impossible for the ordinary person to keep...Jesus tried to do something radical.  He attempted to point to the human condition, underneath the law.  He tried to help people understand the underlying principles of the law...and not to worry so much about the details.

He did that in a number of ways.  First, in response to a question about which were the most important laws, he pointed to the two most positive, life-affirming commandments of the entire Bible:  Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.  "On these two commandments", he said, "hang all the Law and the Prophets".  In other words, if you can simply hold on to these two God and love your neighbour as you would yourself...and truly live your life by them...then no other laws would strictly be necessary.  All the rest is just explanation.

Secondly, Jesus attempted to go to the heart of what certain specific laws were all about.  So, addressing the topic of murder, he says "if you are even angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.  If you insult another person, you will be liable to the hell of fire".  In other words, Jesus points us to the causes of unrestrained anger, or malicious insult...and says "that is where to focus.  By the time a human relationship has deteriorated to the level of murder...its too late".  So he tells his followers, effectively, "If you are offering a gift at the altar, and you know that there is someone who has something against you...stop.  Don't make an offering to God, until you have sorted out the relationship with your neighbour.  Love for God, and love for neighbour go hand in hand.  Sort out the underlying human problem...and then you will be able to joyfully obey the law."

Jesus applies that same basic technique to all types of law.  He does the same basic thing with the idea of divorce - saying that where marriages break up simply as a result of lust (and for no other reason) it is obviously wrong.  Effectively he says, "It would be better for you to pluck your eye out than let it wander lustfully".   He rails at those who bind up the idea of Sabbath with hundreds of regulations, saying effectively, "Come on people...the idea is to have a day off!".  He teaches that making complicated legal vows makes no point unless you are basically an honest and trustworthy person...someone whose 'yes' means 'yes', and whose 'no' means 'no'.

But there is one further, vitally important thing that Jesus does to the notion of law.  He underlines the whole idea of regulations with an even more important Godly principle...the principle of forgiveness.  To a thief on the cross, he promises paradise.  To greedy Zaccheus, he pronounces salvation.  To the woman caught in adultery, he refuses to condemn, and points out the hypocrisy of those who would stone her.

Jesus understands, you see, that the keeping of an abstract code, like a law, relies on human relationships being right.  If there is hatred between people, its no good telling them not to murder one've got to bring healing and forgiveness into the relationship.  If a man is a liar, its no good making him swear by God, or by heaven, or by earth, or by the Holy've got to strike at the heart of the problem...his basic untruthfulness, and the circumstances which have made him like that.  It's no good just condemning people whose marriages are struggling...human life is messy, human beings are subject to all sorts of pressures.  Into each situation where God's law has been broken, Jesus offers forgiveness and healing...not condemnation.   As our Collect for today reflects, "O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by the reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright..."  Jesus knows that life is tough and messy for us...which is why he offers us the chance to lay our burdens down at his feet.  "Come to me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest".

And that, surely, is the pattern we must follow too.  It would be easy for any of us to think we have the right to stand in judgement over other people.  Some evil-doing clearly requires swift judgement, and appropriate punishment.  Of course.  If I were to murder someone, I would expect nothing less.  But as for the great majority of human wrong-doing, it arises so often out of our human frailty...and out of our stubborn refusal, as a race, to love God and our neighbour as much as we should.  So let us, with Jesus, be cautious about condemnation.  Like us, like him, point to the heart of the human condition, and not the surface symptom of law-breaking.

As the old Native American saying goes, "Never condemn another man until you have walked a mile in his mocassins."