RULES FOR LIFE According to this week’s BBC news, even the Pope has to puzzle his way matching accepted Church rules to intractable moral issues. One longstanding problem for the Catholic Church is dealing with a shortage of priests in critical areas – like the Amazon, where the forest and local Indian tribes are being ravaged in the name of progress. If there aren’t enough priests who should do the work of priests?…. women? …lay people? Married priests? Not an easy question for Catholics because many years of custom in the Catholic Church
Even issues like murder, almost universally condemned by virtually all religions get a mite complicated when the killing of civilians is sometimes done impersonally via an approved national military dropping bombs in the name of national interests.
One of the real puzzles in life is choosing the absolutely correct set of rules to live by. When I go downtown and meet the street evangelists I am sure that each one thinks he or she has the only correct version of beliefs. But when I think of the changing world we live in I am somewhat less sure that one set of rules fits all in a constantly changing world.
If Jesus is the source of our important knowledge, I don’t know if you have noticed, but he was forever breaking the fixed rules of his time. The customs of the day required that Lepers be shunned – they were literally the untouchables. Jesus touches the lepers.
The Israelites shunned those of other beliefs. Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman at the well. He had a meal with the tax collector who was collecting taxes for the Roman invaders. He mixed with thieves and prostitutes. Of course he does still say we should live by the law: but that is very different from blindly following majority behaviour. Churches don’t always get the customs and beliefs acceptable -even to all Christians.
Perhaps this is why Jesus is putting the focus on attitudes rather than beliefs.
I am not sure how many here have Scottish Church connections, or in this instance are actually members of the Scottish Episcopal Church, one of my favourite Church writers happens to be Richard Holloway – (a one-time Primus) in the Episcopal Church of Scotland. (ie see the comment at the end). In one of a number of striking illustrations he once likened the Church to an ancient galleon – now totally encrusted with barnacles lumbering slowly through the water along a dangerous rocky coast guided by outdated maps – and I guess by implication we might think of at least some of those on board actually thinking the barnacles are important to preserve.
Perhaps on reflection I am inclined to add to his illustration suggesting perhaps a whole flotilla of ships of different ages, different types and very different conditions of seaworthiness – with each crew believing that they alone are heading in the best direction. History might remind us that for some at least there is a degree of misplaced optimism.
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.
Here in one small part of 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. 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.
Just as Jesus had to reinterpret his message for his generation don’t forget even his examples 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. If we remember these are problems for our neighbours our answers might be less rule bound.
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. The ways we 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.
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 each partner set out in marriage, intent on getting the best for themself, 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 mystery 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.