Last Saturday morning saw me with David our Vicar in the Cathedral, listening to Rowan Williams’ brilliant address on “Faith, Hope & Charity in Tomorrow’s World”. The address was followed by 30 minutes of questions put to him by the audience; I must say David and I thought most of them were extremely pedestrian! One, unsurprisingly perhaps, was on whether it would be better for Church and society if the Ten Commandments were regularly taught. (that, at least, was the gist of it). The archbishop answered yes and then went on to give his more nuanced elaboration of that.
Today’s Gospel seems to bring us back into this area with a bang – what is the place of the Jewish law in Christianity? Does it, indeed, have a place, and if so which bits of it? And this is a debate that has been with the Church literally from its very beginning. For the Church for which and to which the books of the NT were written was involved in a long process of defining itself in relation to the Judaism from which it had sprung. And as it did this it had pressures both from Judaism and from Christians of Jewish origin. Often those Christians with a Jewish background took a different stance on the place of the law from their Gentile fellow-Christians. One thinks of Paul, who has a curiously ambivalent attitude to the Law. And the author of Matthew’s gospel shows a considerable concern with matters relating to the Law. Professor Leslie Houlden once suggested in some lectures that I attended that the author of Matthew’s gospel was perhaps a converted scribe, or teacher of the law. Certainly, though he took over almost all of the text of Mark’s gospel when he composed the Gospel of Matthew, as he did so he often silently edited out the more controversial bits of Mark – for instance, when Jesus was saying that it was what you did and said and thought that made you unclean, not what you ate. Mark went on as an aside to say that this meant that Jesus was declaring all kinds of food clean (Mark 7:19). Matthew silently drops this aside! (Matthew 15:10-20).
We need to remember as well that Law not just the Ten Commandments but also the whole raft of interpretation that applied them to every conceivable situation. Indeed, the Law is often thought of as the first five books of the Old Testament. The book of Leviticus is particularly concerned with laws about ritual purity and worship – if you ever suffer from insomnia and want an alternative to a sleeping draught I recommend you to read the book of Leviticus!
In gospels Jesus is shown as underlining the heart of the Ten Commandments – especially in his summary of the Law, that they are summed up in our duty to love God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves (this summary itself having its origin in Jewish teaching). Jesus seems, however, to have sat lightly to many of the purity laws – for instance, those concerned with washing hands before eating and about what constituted forbidden work on the Sabbath. When once criticised for healing a man on the Sabbath in the synagogue Jesus rounded on his critics, pointing out that if their beast fell into a pit on the Sabbath they would readily pull it out; why, therefore, should he not set this man free on the Sabbath!
Jesus in our Gospel passage underlines the heart of the law, while seeming to criticise those who by their added rules softened the impact of the Law. And he goes further. The demands of the Law go far beyond the mere letter of the law. And here I have a gripe about the compilers of the lectionary, who once again truncate a passage absurdly so that on its own the Gospel we have today does not give the whole force of what Jesus says!. In what Jesus says in verses 20 and following he shows that the real meaning of the Law goes far beyond the mere letter.
Jesus cites six examples in the verses that follow our gospel for today, in each case the teaching of Jesus is far more rigorous than that of the Jewish Law. Let us look at a few of them.
“You have heard that it was said to men of old”, Jesus says, “‘you shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the Council (that is the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal body in Judaism), and whoever says to his brother ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire (the final punishment God inflicts). Jesus is suggesting that anger, the passion that so often impels people to murder, is as guilty as the act of murder itself. And expressions of anger in speech are even more strongly condemned. So, if we call someone an idiot (which is much what the language of Jesus implies), we had better watch out! This is demanding stuff – and Jesus goes on to demand that reconciliation be sought for wrongs done, for things said that were better never said. For a Jew worship was the most sacred action in which a person could engage – but even that must be postponed for reconciliation. For Jesus goes on to say, “If when you bring your gift to the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go and be reconciled with your brother”. [A parallel to this can curiously be found in the Mishnah ( a body of orally transmitted Jewish law) which Jesus is perhaps reflecting, which says: “The Day of Atonement does not atone for offences against your neighbour unless one reconciles him”].
How we behave towards each other is thus placed far above even worship. And maybe who started the quarrel is irrelevant to the duty of reconciliation.
Jesus goes on to speak of other areas – including adultery; to look at another person lustfully is as bad as the act of adultery itself.
These are demanding words – and maybe in Lent it is no bad thing that we hear them. For which of us has not casually spoken of others in sneering or belittling ways? Who among us has always looked at others with eyes of total purity?
I have said enough! Far too much, in fact, for my conscience to easily bear if I take these words seriously. These words give us a demanding challenge; and, if I might borrow an image from athletics, the one who has set out the course for us has raised the bar far too high for any of us to jump over it!
I suggest we spend a few moments in silent reflection on these words of Jesus, before we move on to our prayers. Let us keep silence.