Richard Holloway, a past Moderator of the Church of Scotland, now perhaps better known as a modern thinker and radical religious writer, once likened the Christian Church to an ancient galleon, now moving very slowly, encumbered with centuries of encrustations on its hull.
Although Richard Holloway’s interpretation resonates with many features of much of the church it occurred to me there are two further parallels worth checking out. To me, the Church is now very fragmented and a more accurate analogy is a whole fleet of vessels of varying age and style all attempting to work their way down a poorly mapped coast.
Unfortunately many of the sailors and passengers assume that Richard Holloway’s centuries of encrustations are essential to the success of the voyage.
Looking back to the early history of our faith, perhaps this was always inevitable. Just as the Israelites borrowed from surrounding cultures and as their circumstances changed, new influences have been superimposed on the old, each leaving its own layers of tradition and practice.
In today’s reading we find Jesus, recognised by many today as the Messiah, breaking with this tradition and offering a form of what we might now call situational ethics. History tells us it was a comparatively short time before, once again, followers of the new faith started adding their own layers of interpretation to what Jesus taught and despite his emphasis on living the faith, his followers opted for placing the emphasis on styles of worship.
What Jesus offered with his teaching was not so much a rejection of the old but rather a new way of looking at tradition that enabled his followers to regain a sense of travelling with perspective and direction. The nearest thing we have to a summary of his teaching was in the Sermon on the Mount.
Today’s lesson is helpful because here in that sermon, Jesus is taking some standard religious laws and customs and is explaining that they mean nothing unless they are accompanied with the right sort of attitude to those around them.
I would suggest two points might be made. First his message would have seemed almost shocking to the traditionalists in his audience who saw the law and traditions as Holy, and what is more, complete and immutable. By launching into a series of statements which had the general form “You have learned….. but I say to you now …..” he was putting his own spin on the teachings he was using as example.
Jesus words probably horrified the traditionalists because it is most unlikely that they would have expected Jesus to have the right to assume the authority needed to alter tradition in any way whatsoever.
The second point is just my opinion, but I want to suggest that a consequence of picking up on Jesus’ general theme is that that since our attitudes to one another provide perspective to interpret the law for particular situations – this means that even the examples Jesus chose might need rethinking if the situation for those around us is different to that of his listeners.
His first example is a particular case in point. Jesus correctly points out that not committing murder may be a standard teaching but it is also one that doesn’t go far enough. If we are nursing anger against our neighbours, he suggested, or abusing or even simply sneering at them, we also require judging. This first part is fair enough and indeed it might be argued that if our attitude was right towards them in the first place, no harm, including murder would have taken place.
But if our faith is to be our own faith, simply cobbling together what we remember of Jesus’ teaching on murder and following it slavishly, will not cover many of our modern situations. For example modern warfare may have morphed into murder without us noticing. Many of the wars in the past have been between soldiers with soldiers as the main casualties. Since modern warfare has a much higher proportion of civilian casualty we should at least ask the question if there is a danger of becoming accessories to murder if we support a modern war.
Another newer related issue is that the right-to-life supporters are starting to insist we resist abortion on the grounds that killing the unborn as potential humans is equivalent to murder. But before we rush to lend our support to that campaign think again what Jesus was saying about attitudes. If a teenage mother to be, whose only crime was to be raped, or a mother carrying a child known to be likely to be born with a serious mental defect, or a mother living in absolute poverty are all also our neighbours surely to simply insist that they carry the child to full term without dealing adequately with their personal concerns is not in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.
Another situation which modern medical practice introduces a new set of ethical considerations in the termination of a life by what is often called mercy killing or euthanasia. Before leaping to judgment on this one, again we must remind ourselves that our world is now very different to that of Jesus and his disciples. One of the consequences of modern medicine is that many people are kept alive by medical intervention – and often long past the point where they might be said to have quality of life. The set of questions that deserve the attention of modern Christians relate to how best to approach that particular dilemma without forgetting we are talking about our neighbours.
Nor should we ignore the implication of Jesus’ requirement that we desist from harbouring grudges or anger, and the reminder that we should not abuse or even sneer at those who aggrieve us. Perhaps easier said than done, yet if we are following through on the attitudes part of the Sermon on the Mount, we may need to remind ourselves that although it is our choice to follow Jesus, having taken up that challenge, we can hardly say we will follow without following the spirit of his essential teaching.
For example if we were to step back to reflect on what more actions our Church community should be taking to ease the lot of new immigrants, how better we might show we welcome those of different culture or faith into our community. If better we might make minorities feel when they join us as guests in our Church functions and in our homes, we may be coming closer to saying Amen to this part of Jesus’ teaching.
“When you are bringing your gift to the altar”, Jesus went on to say ….Well again for many of us, we now live in a different age. We no longer buy pigeons in the Temple Courtyard to sacrifice on the altar. But this does not mean we should simply ignore what Jesus is saying.
The gift we may be bringing is often nothing more than a token offering for the collection plate. Yet Jesus’ teaching may still have something for us to consider. If we also find ourselves harbouring resentments then even a humble gift of a few dollars in the offering plate is not going to mean much for our Christian journey if we have no intention of sorting out our differences before we make that offering.
Next Jesus addresses the issue of private disputes which I guess includes the matter of unpaid debts. It has always seemed rather odd to me that if a person breaks into a few homes taking nothing but a few IPods, cell phones and the occasional piece of jewellery he or she is quite likely to find themselves with a short sharp prison term to remind them of the need not to steal.
When on the other hand someone racks up a huge debt to you – often equivalent to your entire life savings, at best they tend to get some form of diversion or community service. Jesus’ words should remind us that debts hurt – and that by implication the hurt matters. Again for those claiming to be Christian, unpaid debts and what we call civil cases whether it be for unsettled accounts with trades-people, goods taken on deposit and not fully paid for within the agreed time, or faulty vehicles sold under false pretences – we might remember all are actions taken which imply we are not prepared to follow the spirit of Jesus’ recorded words.
I said before that some of Jesus’ words are best understood as being directed towards an audience who lived in his time not in our time. This means that with issues like divorce where the surrounding laws are very different to those in Jesus’ time, an exact attempt to follow the letter of the Jewish customs is frankly inappropriate. In any event Jesus simply did not give direct guidance on many of our contemporary situations relating to matters like child custody, like grounds for divorce, like maintenance, like gay marriage or for that matter like the complicated workings of the matrimonial property law. In fact I would go further and say that many safeguards and laws now offer far better protection than was the case in the days of Jesus and his disciples. We should however acknowledge Jesus’ guidance at that time was more helpful than the then current teaching on divorce.
But the mention of divorce is also an appropriate reminder that apart from being the sixth Sunday of Epiphany today is also Valentine’s Sunday, being the closest Sunday to St Valentine’s day.
Accordingly I would like to finish with a brief mention of part of a sermon I once heard at a wedding. The preacher commenced with a rather surprising assertion, directed to the newly married couple.
“Marriage”, he said, “is not for you!” I might add at that point there appeared to be a collective intake of breath from the startled congregation. Then he continued. “Marriage is for the person you are marrying.” In other words, if we set out in marriage, intent on getting the best for yourself, the marriage is unlikely to succeed. If on the other hand if we think first of the other and put them first in the decision making, then marriage indeed becomes a living relationship.
Well, we are not all currently in marriage relationships. However at the centre of everything Jesus taught by word and action is how to develop proper relationship not just between husband and wife but with basically whoever we might come into contact, whether it be relationship with family, or with friends, or with neighbours, or even whether it be relationship with the dimly understood one we understand to be the God encountered in acts of Love and Compassion. “ Living for the other” subsumes the law. It sorts out our decision making and will help us come to sensible conclusions on a whole raft of puzzling issues.
I wonder if “Living for the other” might even be the Epiphany summary for the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. If it is, St Valentine’s Sunday seems as good a day as any to start to make it our own.