Friday, March 1, 2024

The laws of an angry God

 Texts:  Exodus 20.1-17 & John 2.13-22

There are two vitally important bits of social theology before us in today’s readings.  The first is the Gospel story of Jesus chasing out the money changers in the temple.  That story has inspired an internet meme in recent years, which goes:  “When people ask ‘what would Jesus do?’, remember that the answer includes making a whip out of ropes, turning over tables and hounding people out of temples!” 

The question at stake is whether anger can ever be justified.  And the answer seems to be that yes, anger at injustice or exploitation by powerful elites over ordinary people very certainly can.  That’s what the money changers represented, you see.  There was a law, in Jesus’ time, that the offerings people made to the temple, or the money they used to buy animals for sacrifices, had to be Jewish money.  Roman coins were a symbol of occupation, and therefore only the Jewish shekel would do.  So the money changers offered people a way to change their roman coins – but they did so by charging a fee – and making a nice profit for themselves.  Many of the people who used the temple were, of course, poor.  This Temple Law therefore penalised every one of them, to the profit of the money changers.

The same practice goes on today, by our banks and our exchange bureaus.  According to the Bank for International Settlements, trading in foreign exchange markets averaged US$7.5 trillion per day in April 2022.  It is challenging to find out how much profit is made from these transactions – but you can be sure that the total runs into billions.  Every time that a migrant worker in the UK (probably working on minimum wages) wants to send money home to their family for essential items like food or rent, the money-changers make a profit for themselves.  Every time a UK charity or church wants to send money for famine relief, or to build water-towers, the money-changers still make a profit.  The wealthy make a living off the backs of the poor.  Again.  Is it any wonder that Jesus was angry?

The second item of social theology before us is the 10 commandments. In older times, we would have recited the commandments together on all the Sundays throughout Lent.  And in Tudor times, the law of the land required that the 10 Commandments should be inscribed upon wooden tablets – and placed at the East End of the church for everyone to be constantly reminded of them. 

But, what can I say about them in just a few minutes, here on a Sunday?  I’m sure that none of you would thank me for a 10 point sermon!

Well, let me be concise: the plain fact is that today’s society couldn’t care less about the 10 Commandments!  If you ask the typical man or woman in the street what the basic rules of society should be, they will often say things like ‘bring back the 10 Commandments’ – and then they will merrily go about their lives in complete ignorance of what the commandments actually teach.

What do I mean?  Well let’s look at them in two groups – for we can split the 10 Commandments into two headings – just as Jesus did. 

First, there’s the group of Commandments which are about God, and our relationship to God.  Worship God only, don’t make graven images and idols, don’t take his name in vain, and set aside a Sabbath day to rest and commune with God.

Secondly, there’s the group of Commandments which are about how we live with each other – or, in Jesus words, how we can ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’.   So let’s look at those two groups – and examine whether my statement, just now, that today’s society couldn’t care less about them actually holds water.

First – the commandments about loving and worshipping God.  The word ‘worship’ is a contraction of ‘worth-ship’ – in other words, giving something its worth, or expressing the worth that we assign to a given thing, or person.  So when some random oil paints, carefully applied to some canvass, sell for millions of pounds, society is assigning a worth to that painting.  (It’s tragic, isn’t it, that we assign much more worth to the scribblings of a dead artist than we do to the life of living, but homeless person?) When a society revels in celebrities, or expensive fashion, or the lastest car, it is giving worth-ship to those things. 

Ultimately, the thing we choose to make our personal god, is the thing that we invest most of our spare time, resources and energy into.  Each of us must judge for ourselves.  But I guarantee that each of us has, at some time in our lives, made something or someone else into a kind of god.  Something that commands all our love, energy, devotion and spare time.

To any of us who have developed such a god (with a small ‘g’), the Lord God Almighty, creator of the Universe, says to us, “Oi!  You there!  Look over here!”  The 10 Commandments invite us to put our primary focus back towards the source of all things, towards the energy, creativity, power and beauty that is actually at the root of everything which we choose to make into a god.  The facial perfection of a film-star?  It comes from God, the ground of all beauty.  The wisdom of a great philosopher?  It comes from God, the ground of all wisdom.  The power of that twin-turbo super-charged car you love to polish?  It comes from God, the ground of all power and the author of physics.  The mischievous laugh of the grandchild or the pet you are obsessing over?  It comes from God, the ground of all family and love. 

The 10 Commandments call us back to the source – and to a right focus on God, who is the ground of all being.  And then they encourage us to act in God-like ways towards our neighbours.

The second group of Commandments are all about the way we live together.  Murder, adultery, lying, stealing, and covetousness are all bundled together, along with the command that we should respect and honour our parents – the older generation who have much to teach the young. But murder, adultery, lying, stealing and covetousness are so normal in our society, that we don’t even blink anymore when we see them in our national life.  No, no-one cares anymore.  We just accept our leaders’ disregard of the 10 commandments without a second thought.  We have lost the passion of the one we call Lord who chased the thieving leaders of his day out of the Temple.

No, my friends, the hard and irresistible conclusion has to be, as I said 10 minutes ago, today’s society couldn’t care less about the 10 Commandments.

So?  What?   What are we to do about this?  We have a choice.  We have always had a choice.  We have the same choice that inspired Moses to bring these commands down from the mountain.  We have the same choice that Jesus gave to his followers.  We can choose to roll over, let the lies, the murder, theft, adultery and covetousness consume us, as it consumes our neighbours.   We can carry on shifting our focus away from the source of all gods.   Or we can repent….turn around…and focus our lives, our attention, our time and our devotion back to the centre.  To God, to author and perfecter of all things, and the ground of all being.   And that, my friends, is what Lent is all about.   Amen.

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