A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields, on October 25, 2020 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading Matthew 22. 34-46
Do you own a tumble dryer? I am a huge fan of tumble dryers. You put your clothes in and they get blasted by hot air and a couple of hours later they come out bone dry (or in the case of my tumble dryer only slightly damp). The challenge with tumble drying is that the heat comes at the clothes from all angles, along with the environment inside the drum constantly moving so that they do dry (mostly) but by the time the heat stops they fall into a crumpled heap and take the shape of however they fall.
This means you either have to get used to the extra step of ironing them back into shape or you get used to wearing clothing that look a bit of a mess. I’ll leave you to imagine which one I went for.
Being blasted from all angles and coming out crumpled can be a bit like engaging with religious morality.
I grew up in a church that had decided to do things differently. In the face of the extreme liberalism of the 1960s and 70s a group of young adults (some of whom were ordained anglicans) decided to reject all the over-interpretation of the Bible and attempt to simply put into practice everything ethical code they found advocated in the New Testament… everything.
So women wore hats to pray, we met in houses – not in church buildings or even school halls – to the point they had to knock through the entire ground floor of a Georgian townhouse to create a room large enough for the 150 members while still being technically in a house.
In the book of Acts it says that the believers ate together so everyone brought sandwiches after church.
And people were generous with their finances often a giving third to half of incomes to those in need.
In lots of ways it was liberating but one of the challenges with deciding to follow all the rules without interpretation for current circumstances… is that there were occasions where the outworking didn’t always look like love.
This isn’t a million miles away from the experience of scholars in Jesus’ day trying to live by the rules in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are laws for everything. Some of them make sense to us, some less so. They were written for the Jewish nation over thousands of years in a huge variety of different situations. By Jesus’ day, let alone by our day, they didn’t always make sense in the way they had when they were written.
Leviticus 19.19 Don’t plant more than one kind of seed in a field
Same verse Don’t wear clothes made of both linen and wool
Leviticus 15.19 Don’t sit where a menstruating woman has sat
Deuteronomy 22.6 If you find a birds nest, you can take the eggs but let the mother go free.
Leviticus 11.19 Don’t eat owls
Deuteronomy 22.8 When you build a roof, put a fence at the edge so people don’t fall off.
Sometimes laws seem to contradict each other… if your brother dies should you marry his wife? Leviticus 20:21 says yes, it’s your duty but Deuteronomy 25:5 says no… in fact punishes it with death.
Is it even possible to live by all the rules in the Scriptures?
In the middle of an altercation in the street Jesus is asked where he, as a rabbi, aligns himself – which set of rules trump all the other rules?
This isn’t about what’s the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures – he would probably have said something about “God calls us to covenant with Godself and is committed to honouring that covenant through everything”.
It’s also not about which particular law is Jesus’ favourite.
If you look at the original Greek he is asked “Which type” of law rather than “what law” is the greatest.
- Is he most interested in hierarchy in families and that society will work best if everyone knows their place and obey customs that show that?
- Does he think devotion to God is best shown through personal self restraint in strict adherence to food laws not taking the easy (or tasty) way out during cooking or hygiene?
- Does he think the most important thing in life is to ensure that you are sticking to the macro rules for governing society and how you fight battles and deal with criminals?
People today work out our politics in similar ways…
- Do you think the key to a good society is having strong families and local community support?
- Is it about having a strong government holding a strong welfare state and generous foreign policy?
- Is it about individual responsibility to set up a good life for themselves while causing the least damage to others?
Perhaps you enjoy finding out where people fit in these categories as a way to work out if this person is like you, or a terrible human being who you’ll have nothing to do with. This expert in the law is doing something similar.
Which of these is Jesus? Or will Jesus blow all of these out of the water with a departure from the law altogether?
Jesus responds in a way the questioner isn’t expecting.
He creates a new category, but he does it using old material…
The old material starts with one of the most well known phrases in Jewish religious life.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.”
This is Deuteronomy 6.5 but it’s also part of the prayer that was prayed at every Sabbath meal, every Jewish festival, and was supposed to be the first thing that came out of Jewish men’s mouths as they woke up each morning. It would be the equivalent of a new celebrity guru in a Ted Talk saying that the key to spirituality is to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – it was familiar to being part of the fabric of who they are.
Jesus adds in another line, also familiar Leviticus 19.18 “love your neighbour as yourself”
You asked for the most important category of laws?
Here it is.
Instead of gathering the laws about the self or government or the household, Jesus gathers the laws about love. Love of the self (true love of the self – not the same as selfishness), equal love of neighbour and all encompassing love of God. Love is the most important category of law and the way to make sense of the others. Put on the bi-phocals of these verses when you read the rest.
Jesus doesn’t wipe the slate clean and start anew.
Jesus puts old laws in a new order. Drapes familiar clothes in a new way. Like in cookery where you suddenly learn you can add herbs like thyme or oregano to a lemon drizzle cake and familiar old things become exciting, invigorating and fresh.
Jesus is into up-cycling.
Nothing is thrown away.
God never stops being faithful to a promise even if it is in an entirely new context.
However this is also new.
My partner Fiona is not into tumble drying. When we got a civil partnership and moved in together she came with two old large drying wracks and a commitment to reducing my carbon footprint.
The thing about drying wracks seems to be that they mold the cloth around their shape. In the case of our two old wracks they leave points in the corners of cardigans and lines down the middle of trouser legs where they have been folded over them. However if you find a way of draping them that is in line with the human body…by using coat hangers… the clothes dry flat and fit perfectly without the need to force the creases out with the later process of ironing.
All the rules in the Bible, Jesus says, are intended to hang on love of each of God, neighbour and self and they make sense when you do that. And he throws in the prophets, the rest of the scriptures too.
I don’t know which type of church you have experienced before St Martins or where you most easily fit now.
Some churches try to follow all the laws in the Bible in their entirety – and are fond of proof texts “well it says in Hezekiah 5 verse 9 that I am right and if it doesn’t work for you then tough.”
Jesus doesn’t leave room for this. If the rule you are applying isn’t hanging on love then you’re not doing it right.
But neither does he let us use scripture for something else.
I love the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” but it seriously winds up a lot of academic historians. The thing they don’t like is that it encourages people to mine history for validation of their own lives. We need to let the people of the past be the whole people they are within their context.
Similarly we can look back into the Old Testament through the lens of a framework we have chosen outside of it. How many times have you seen a politician claim that Jesus was a socialist or a feminist or a whatever they want us to be.
The challenge with most systems is that they demonise or at least “Other” people who don’t embody their views. However much we quote Jesus turning over tables in the temple, phrases like “I hate Tories” or “I’m no friend of re-moan-ers” or “I hate white privileged men” are not things we can imagine Jesus saying. This drying wrack holds things in the shape of love alone.
But this is also a system that has space for you, specifically you.
Embodying Jesus’ law of love may look different in different circumstances.
The first commandment in the Hebrew scriptures is to be fruitful and multiply. Have babies. You’d think that the first commandment in the whole of the Bible would get more adherence but there are many parents who decide that for the sake of love of God’s planet or their ability to care for existing children or, quite frankly, love for themselves and their own sanity, decide to use science to limit how much they follow this commandment.
There are some circumstances where it is most loving, most Christlike to plant only one kind of seed in a field or wear only one type of material in your clothing. And there are circumstances where it doesn’t make any difference or is actively unloving of God, neighbour and self to do this.
It’s harder than it sounds to really live day to day in a way that engages with the invitation to hang everything we do on the ideas of whole hearted loving God, neighbour and self. But it shouldn’t be burdensome.
The power for living by this commandment is a small word that in English has four letters.
This God that we are called to love with all of our heart, mind and soul/instinct is not a far away God barking orders from a distance. This isn’t a distant idea of God. And the command to love is in response to something that has already happened.
This God is described here as YOUR God.
The God of your ancestors, the God of David, the God who has given Godself to you to be associated with the people of Israel and the human race in general. This God has taken it further now. David’s decedent, the Messiah, the one David calls “my Lord” is here, in front of you, offering you both a model for what this law of love looks like in the flesh AND walking with us through all of what it looks like to live this in real life. No laboratory conditions for morality now.
God in Christ has said God wants to be known as YOUR God.
Everything God wants for human life is now practical, tangible and in looking to follow the God revealed in both Old and New Testaments all we have to do is look to the whole life of Christ. Christ’s love for God, neighbor and self is now how we can understand the scriptures.
There is power in this Christ/Love/Law/Person to the point of where when his neighbours did not love him and hung him on a rack it is not the wrack that transforms the material but the material that transforms the rack into a symbol of beauty and love. So this can be true as we try to follow God’s way in the Old and New Testaments. By putting on the Christ glasses – looking for what looks like Christ – we find what looks like love of God, and loving our neighbour as ourself.
And then our lives too, may hang on love.