Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 5: 21, 22a, 27, 28, 31 to 48; Galatians 5:13-23
You have to have some sympathy for Moses. He was in charge of a vast horde of refugees. They were escaping from Egypt - let`s face it they were kicked out! They made it across the Red Sea and avoided the pursuing Egyptian army, but what next? Where were they to go? Understandably they roamed around for a bit, uncertain where to go. The desert was not a very hospitable place. Food and water were a problem and there was grumbling and disputation. `Why did you bring us here?`
Moses needed some rules to control this horde and those rules had to have authority. He wasn`t the first one to find a need for rules. There were rules about how to interact with other people in most of the surrounding nations and it`s believed that the last seven commandments are based on codes of rules from other nations.
But the Israelites were different. As Bill Loader explained in the first of his Lenten Series last week, the Israelites believed in a different kind of God from the neighbouring nations. Not lots of gods, not an idol, not the spirits of ancestors or whatever, the Israelites` God was special and the list of rules needed to reflect that. So the first five of Moses` rules spell out how to behave towards God and the rest how to behave towards others.
I`m calling them the rules of Moses. In the reading they are expressed as rules laid down by God. I`m sure that Moses was a devout man and sought divine guidance, but he was also pragmatic and borrowed from lists of rules that he already knew and the Ten Commandments reflect that.
If you read on further it is clear that Ten Commandments were nowhere near enough to control the horde. In the following pages of the Bible there are many more rules spelled out - 613 altogether. No wonder that by Jesus time it was complicated to follow all the rules!
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says some uncomfortable things about the Ten Commandments. Jesus` words in the Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount seem to make the commandments impossible to follow!
But whenever something Jesus says sounds impossible or strange it is worth asking; `What is he really getting at?`
Usually when Jesus says something impossible or excessive it is in a parable. The camel going through the eye of a needle. The speck of dust in someone`s eye and the log in your own. The widow throwing a party because she has found a coin.
It seems to me that Jesus` talk about the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount is one of Jesus` typical parables. Note that he says at the outset `you have to be holier than the Scribes and Pharisees`. The unstated message is that even the Scribes and Pharisees can`t live up to the demands of the law.
The Scribes and Pharisees probably prided themselves in their observance - `I didn`t murder anyone today!` But Jesus raises the bar impossibly high - don`t even get angry with people - or if you do, sort it out, don`t sit and sulk.
They believed retaliatory violence was OK. `You black my eye, I`ll black yours` but Jesus` rule was not retaliation but submission. Paul in his letter to the Romans tries to explain that away by saying leave room for the vengeance of God, quoting Deuteronomy `Vengeance is mine, I will repay`. But I don`t think that was what Jesus meant at all.
The bit about loving your enemies was perhaps the hardest bit to swallow, but I also think it was the key. It sums up what Jesus` parable of following the law was all about. `Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.` Wow, that`s quite a call!
The Scribes and Pharisees prided themselves in their observance of the letter of the law. But Jesus is effectively telling his audience that following the letter of the law with your mind, motivated by getting a tick from God is never going to be enough. You need to follow the spirit of the law with your heart, motivated by love.
Later on, as you`ll remember, when asked by the Pharisees` lawyer which was the greatest commandment he listed two - love God and love your neighbour as yourself. `As yourself` - remember those words, we`ll come back to them.
Let`s look now at the reading from Paul`s letter to the Galatians. In fact the whole of Galatians is a plea to the people in the church there to not be caught up in trying to follow the law. In Chapter 2 verse 16 he says `we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ`.
In Chapter 3 verse 23 he goes on `before faith came we were imprisoned under the law ... the law was our disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith`.
Chapter 5 starts with `For freedom Christ has set us free`.
Paul says `The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: `Love your neighbour as yourself.``
What does that phrase `justified by faith in Christ` mean. It seems to me it is like happiness in the song, it means different things for different people. Each of us has to work it out for our selves. For me it means having faith that God isn`t like the writers of the Old Testament pictured God to be, not a disciplinarian demanding obedience to the law.
I love the way it is put in 1 John - `God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.` Being justified by faith in Christ, for me, is believing in the sort of God Jesus talked about. And if the God of love is living in you, you don`t need sets of laws.
The message that is behind this is `God doesn`t want us to be pedantic followers of rules`. That`s the wrong motivation. In fact it is putting the cart before the horse. It`s not a question of `Did I get that rule right?` but `What is the loving thing to do here?`
That`s why when he is asked directly which is the most important of the 613 rules he explains that the most important law is the law of love - love God and love your neighbour.
Last Sunday evening Bill Loader was cleaning out his collection of books and inviting us to take any that might take our fancy. I picked up this one `Preaching the New Lectionary` by Reginald H Fuller. It provides a commentary for each of the set readings for every Sunday of the three-year lectionary and notes on how your sermon might tie them together. It`s an absolute treasure for the occasional preacher like me. It isn`t new. Bill got it in 1979! But it has some interesting things to say about the Galatians reading.
`There is one obligation for Christians, and that is the law of love. `The whole law is fulfilled in one word, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.`
`Hang on,` you may ask, `Moses had ten rules and even Jesus chose two, how can you have just one?` The quote goes on.
`Paul does not overlook the first and greatest commandment; (to love God) he is speaking to those who have already heard the message of justification, and who have therefore been brought into the love of God. Paul is talking about how that love of God can only express itself ... as love of neighbour. Love of neighbour should provide the Christian with a set of antennae, enabling him (or her) to know in each concrete situation what love requires, without a set of rules and regulations. The guidance we need is provided by the `as yourself``. End quote - and end sermon! Amen.