Posted by: owizblog | July 14, 2013

The Limits of Liability? Sermon, UCB, 14 July 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37

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I’d like to begin this morning with a reading from Deuteronomy.

 

Old Deuteronomy’s lived a long time;

He’s a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.

He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme

A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession.

Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives

And more – I am tempted to say, ninety-nine;

And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives

And the village is proud of him in his decline.

At the sight of that placid and bland physiognomy,

When he sits in the sun on the vicarage wall,

The Oldest Inhabitant croaks: “Well, of all …

Things … Can it be … really! … No! … Yes! …

Ho! hi!

Oh, my eye!

My mind may be wandering, but I confess

I believe it is Old Deuteronomy!”

 

The very name of the book, of course, is forbidding. T. S. Eliot chose Old Deuteronomy as the name of the oldest, most senior, most impressive of the cats in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats presumably for that reason – and perhaps, also, because Old Deuteronomy is both ancient, and yet also reinvents himself at intervals. In fact, to go back to the quote from Eliot’s poem we started with, Old Deuteronomy seems to reinvent himself for each new generation.

He’s a Cat who has lived many lives in succession…

Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives…

And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives…

And that’s exactly what the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible represents. It’s a restatement of the Law of Moses – God’s Law – for a new generation, half a millennium and more since the story of Sinai and the Ten Commandments bound a group of people together, since Israel came together on the soil of Palestine, since the Covenant and the shared Law were promulgated.

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Here’s the “Time Team” bit for this morning!

It was the late seventh century BC. Times had changed. An Israelite empire had come and gone. The revived  Assyrian empire had taken away the ten tribes of the north, the Lost Tribes of Israel, and left only Judah and Benjamin huddled in a tiny rump kingdom huddled around Jerusalem. A century of pliant, submissive, appeasing kings had kept things uncomfortably stable, but at the cost of the presence of the symbols of Assyrian religion and power everywhere, even in the most sacred places.

And the were doing fabric repairs to the Temple, and they found a book. A priestly delegation took it to the young King Josiah, and he read it, and rent his garments. He took the book as a measure of the gap that had opened up between how God’s people were supposed to live, and how they were living.

And then, he took it as a manifesto. It’s pretty clear from what Josiah did next, that what they had found was something very close to what we call “The Book of Deuteronomy.” For instance, he centralized the worship of God, the ancient Israelite worship, which had taken place at all sorts of sites we know about from other stories, Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel, in the temple at Jerusalem, demolished the ancient temples of God in these other places, gave their clergy a really hard time. And much else besides – things that aren’t asked for, aren’t even a problem, elsewhere in the older parts of the Old Testament, but there they are in Deuteronomy. And they are presented as being as old as Moses. Because this is indeed Moses’ Law, God’s Law, for a new generation. We have no idea how long the first draft of Deuteronomy had been in the Jerusalem Temple before the builders found it in the 620s B.C. – a few years, a few decades – but that’s what it was. A reinterpretation of the old laws, in the interest of discovering God’s will for a new situation and a changed world.

Listen to the passage again. Hear it for what it is:

 “[T]he LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil…” That isn’t addressed to a group of people who are still in the desert, who wouldn’t have a stake in arable land for a long time.

But there’s something else. Something crucial to understanding why Deuteronomy is so important to understanding Scripture, and the place of the Law.

When faith gets hung up on the Law, things go wrong. When faith gets hung up on keeping commandments, on not transgressing, when faith comes to believe that that’s what faith is, things have gone very badly wrong. A mentality has been bred, which says this about our relationship with God. A pattern, with three basic elements – three elements that Paul, in his letters, systematically denies and contradicts, by the way.

You have to tick all the boxes. That’s what it’s about, and that’s all it’s about.

You can tick all the boxes. You can measure up.

Once you’ve ticked all the boxes, you’re done. You can stop.

But look again at the passage we read from Deuteronomy. Look at how it presents the Law as God’s demand, God’s demand of Israel, God’s people, because the Law is about relationship. It’s about how Israel’s relationship to God is lived out in daily life.

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.

“It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”

“Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”

“No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

It’s real life. It’s seeking the will of God in real life. It’s working from what we know, to what we don’t, from what we understand to what challenges us, stretches us, what’s new and unexampled and unprecedented.

It’s real life…

3

You could say that Deuteronomy here goes beyond the laws, to ask after what God wants. It goes beyond the laws to ask about the Law, if you wish.

How is Israel supposed to live? What is the quality of the shared life of God’s people to be? That’s what Deuteronomy is about. It’s adaptation to new, changing and challenging circumstances, written into Scripture itself.

It should be the very antithesis of the three misunderstandings of the Law that we looked at there:

You have to tick all the boxes. That’s what it’s about, and that’s all it’s about.

You can tick all the boxes. You can measure up.

Once you’ve ticked all the boxes, you’re done. You can stop.

But very often, we read it as though it were just reinforcing them. And we duck the challenge, the Scriptural, Biblical challenge, to rethink our faith in the light of the new, changed world we are living in.

[Break]

4

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

 

You have to tick all the boxes. That’s what it’s about, and that’s all it’s about.

You can tick all the boxes. You can measure up.

Once you’ve ticked all the boxes, you’re done. You can stop.

 

You can see it, can’t you? It’s the pattern that reduces God’s demand to the letter of the Law, and the letter of the Law to a contract. Usually in the Gospels, it pops up in the attitude of the Pharisees, who say “We keep the Law, we keep it to the letter, we’re good with God…”

And to that, Jesus says some very harsh things.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith, which you ought to do without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23f.) You can’t see the wood for the trees, says Jesus, or even more trenchantly “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24)

You have to tick all the boxes. That’s what it’s about, and that’s all it’s about.

You can tick all the boxes. You can measure up.

And Jesus says – as does Paul, later: You don’t tick all the boxes. You don’t – and can’t – measure up.

And they say “Oh, but we can!”

But this – the lawyer’s question that elicits the Parable of the Good Samaritan –  isn’t that. This isn’t someone asking “What do I have to do, and have I done it?” This is someone asking “What do I have to do, and what don’t I have to do?”

“What are my contractual obligations, to God and my neighbour?”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself.”

“[D]o this, and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Where are the limits of God’s demand?

5

And Jesus turns it right round on him. “Who is my neighbour?” becomes “Who was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” “What is the limit of my liability, of the expectations the Law lays on me?” becomes “Do you really think you can think of the things of God like that?”

The Parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t actually mention God once. Not once. But it’s full of God’s demand, and God’s demand is there, not with a great big flag over it saying “This Is God’s Demand!” not with an enormous arrow with flashing neon lights pointing to the crime scene on the Jericho Road saying “This is what God wants you to deal with!”

God’s demand appears in the form of a human being in desperate need. The question isn’t “What should I do in this situation?” “Is he anything to do with me?”The question is “Am I his neighbour?”

How is it possible that any of us, in a circumstance like that, should answer “No!”?

I want to be very careful in saying what I am going to say next. I want to stay entirely within the limits of what I have just said, about God’s demand, about God’s people trying desperately to make sense of that demand in a world that’s changed out of all recognition, and I want to repeat what I have said before, that I believe that party-political statements have no place from the pulpit.

I do, however, believe that it’s a Minister’s place to speak up for one of his members when that member makes a challenging and courageous statement, and is criticized for it.

You may have seen in the latest edition of The Buteman that Gordon Sutherland’s expression, as he retired as manager of the Bute Advice Centre, of grave concern about the effects of government policies on the poorer and more vulnerable members of society, and of our community here in Bute has met with a very public riposte in the letters column of our local paper, and from a party-political direction.

 

http://www.buteman.co.uk/news/local-headlines/bute-mp-hits-back-at-claims-government-is-attacking-poor-1-2998141

 

You might wish to take issue with Gordon’s statement, and that is entirely right and proper – though for my part, I see it as a responsible and thought-out expression arising from a great deal of direct experience of the situation of real people in our community.

An attempt to speak the truth as it is seen deserves better than the restatement of a political party line. Irrespective of how we believe our society has got to this point, irrespective of who we blame for that, irrespective of what policies we might blame, or whose conduct as powerful and cavalier institutions we might censure, we are here. And none of us should be content with any aspect of that.

It’s dangerously easy to slip into terms of:

We have to tick all the boxes. That’s what it’s about, and that’s all it’s about.

We can tick all the boxes. We can measure up.

Once we’ve ticked all the boxes, we’re done. We can stop

We are in a world, the world of July 2013, in which things are desperately hard, and getting harder, yes, for all of us, but disproportionately so for the most vulnerable and the weakest. And this includes young families, single people in challenging circumstances, and our children and grandchildren, whose present is blighted, and whose future is shadowed, by a society that is not the way God wants it to be.

I’m not challenging the party-political allegiances of anyone here this morning. How you vote is a matter for you. I hope that how the Minister votes is, and remains, a mystery. You should draw no conclusions from my expressions of affection for the late Screaming Lord Such! I don’t think what I’m saying is inconsistent with a Christian’s allegiance to any or no political party. But this must be said.

Jesus makes it clear that if God’s will is that we love him with our whole heart, and our neighbour as ourself, then the only allowable question, the only issue, is not “Who is my neighbour?” but “Am I being the neighbour I should be?”

The demands of the God of justice and truth should cut far deeper than any other allegiances, and make all of us ask hard questions of our beliefs, our stances, our political and other allegiances, whatever they are. If we are Christians, we should never pay more attention to anything than to the hard questions God makes us ask. This is the Law beyond the Law.

“It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”

“Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”

“No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

It’s on the street.

It’s in Guildford Square, and Monague Street, at the Advice Centre and the Help Project, and it’s still at Pass It On, as the project relocates temporarily here and seeks God’s will for it.

And it’s in our neighbours here on Bute, and the challenge that Jesus throws out to us, just as much as he did to the scribe who wanted to justify himself.

Not “Who is my neighbour?” but “Who was a neighbour?” And who will be…?”

 

 

 


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