Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 14 July 2013: Year B, Proper 10
Love and the Law
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
People often think that Christianity is basically about morality. They say that Christianity is a way of making people behave well. If you’re good, you go to heaven- and if not, you go to hell. Certainly the Church sometimes gives that impression- that all we are interested in is morality, especially personal, and particularly sexual, morality. And today, indeed, we have read two Biblical texts which are all about morals. Both the Ten Commandments, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, are texts to teach us how we should live our lives. Indeed, the Teacher of the Law, trying to trap Jesus, asks him, ‘Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?’ Jesus challenges him to look to the Hebrew Scriptures which both of them revered: ‘What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?’ And the Law Teacher plucks from those Scriptures two commandments (for he is a teacher of Law, after all): to love God and neighbour. Morals are obviously a very important aspect of Christianity, as they are all an important aspect of all faiths.
But I want to suggest today that morals, ethics, keeping the rules are not what Christianity is about in the first instance. Christian faith is not fundamentally about ethics, but about salvation. It is not about how good or bad we are, but about the love of God. It not, firstly, about what we do or have done, but what God has done for us.
For right at the beginning of the account of the Ten Commandments, Moses hears God speak: ‘God spoke, and these were his words: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves”.’ So this entire body of law is prefaced with
- a statement about God (I am the Lord your God),
- about what God has done for his people (brought you out of Egypt),
- about the relationship God has with his people (I am your God, because I brought you out of Egypt).
For the giving of the Ten Commandments is the high point of a story of how God saves his people. Israel, enslaved by the Egyptians, cries out to God for a freedom. God reveals himself to Moses, speaking from a burning bush. God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. Moses goes to Pharaoh and says, ‘Let my people go!’ Pharaoh won’t do it, until, confronted with terrifying power of Israel’s God, he relents, and Moses takes the people to the shores of the Red Sea. Pharaoh changes his mind, and pursues the Israelites. Trapped between the sea and the oncoming Egyptian army, the people of Israel are rescued when God parts the waters of the Red Sea to let the Israelites cross safely- and destroys their pursuers. But Israel must wander in the wilderness, sustained on by God, before they can enter the Promised Land. And the high point of those wilderness wanderings is the encounter with their God on Mount Sinai. Moses disappears up the mountain to speak to God- and it’s here that he receives the basis of God’s covenant with Israel.
And so God makes it clear with whom Moses is dealing here: ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves’. And the first commandments God gives are not really moral duties at all. They are really religious duties: to worship no other God, to avoid the worship of images, to avoid misusing God’s name, to keep the Sabbath. This is what is summed up in the first part of the Teacher of the Law’s answer to Jesus: ”Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’: a text which does not appear in Exodus 20, but which appears in other places in the Hebrew Scriptures. It sums up the Law as far as we relate to God.
It is often pointed out that the Ten Commandments, as a summary of the laws of the Bible, are one foundation of all the legal systems of many Western nations- and so they are. Yet the Ten Commandments were given to a particular people in a particular time and place, which is why they begin with God. God gives these rules to his people in order that they may be blessed and flourish: but God does so after reminding them of who God is and what God has done for them: ‘”I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves’. And then we can almost put in the word ‘therefore’ before the next sentence: therefore ‘Worship no god but me’. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves; therefore worship no god but me’.
If we choose to live in God’s way, we do so not because God gives laws which may or may not be very good or wise. We do so out of gratitude for God: because God brought Israel, our ancestors in the faith, out of Egypt. God saved them, set them free. And in Christ, God has done the same for you and me. God has set us free, from the power of sin, from the fear of death. As God took the people of Israel, unharmed, through the waters of the Red Sea, so you and I have passed through the waters of baptism, to a new life in Jesus Christ. It is because God has been so good to us, because of what God has done for us in Christ, that we will want to try to live by God’s standards, that we will want to worship no other God. So the first thing we will want to do when we think about how to live our lives properly is what the Teacher of the Law saw as the first and most important commandment: to love God with all our being, heart, mind and soul. Elsewhere Christ calls this ‘the greatest and the most important commandment’ (Matthew 22.38). It sums up the first part of the Ten Commandments- it is how we ought to respond to God’s saving grace and mercy!
The logic of this is brought out in the First Letter of John, in the New Testament, who says, ‘We love because God first loved us’ (1 John 4.19). Because God has loved us into freedom, so we should wish to respond by loving God. John is the great exponent of the love of God- about how God has loved us, and about how we should respond with love. And he writes beautifully about how our response of loving God should also include loving our fellow human beings:
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that [God] loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven. Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in union with us, and his love is made perfect in us. (1 John 4.7-11).
So although God’s love comes first, and our response to that love is our first duty as Christians, we can only be really sincere in our faith if we learn to share God’s love with other people (otherwise, as another New Testament writer puts it, ‘faith without actions is dead’ (James 2.26). John writes:
We love because God first loved us. If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen. The command that Christ has given us is this: whoever loves God must love others also’ (John 4.19-21).
So, following this spiritual logic, the second part of the Ten Commandments is a list of ways in which we can love other people. It begins with respect for parents. It means we can never commit murder, adultery or theft. We are not to accuse another falsely, not covet another person’s goods. With the same spiritual logic, the Teacher of the Law says that knows that having said we love God, we are to love our neighbours just as much as we love ourselves. It’s the same as John says: ‘whoever loves God must love others also’. And therefore Christ calls this, ‘second most important commandment’ which is like the first of his two great commandments (Matthew 22.38). Put these both together, says Christ, and you have the wisdom of all the ages, the summary of how we ought to respond to all that God does for us: ‘The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments’, said Jesus (Matthew 22.40).
It is, of course, possible to live a good life, to love others, to respect them and to do your best for others, and not believe in God. But I wonder where such people go when they feel they have failed to live up to their principles. Sometime folk say to me, ‘I couldn’t be a Christian: it’s too hard. I’d never be good enough’. And I can only say in response, ‘I think I’m a Christian because I don’t think I’m good enough’. If you begin with morality, if you begin with how good you are (or not), if you begin with a set of rules such as we find in the latter part of the Ten Commandments, you are doomed to failure. You might say, ‘I’ve never committed murder’- and that might be true. But you might be wearing clothes made by a child whose life is being ruined in a sweat shop. Your mobile phone probably contains metal which people murder for in the depths of Africa. If you don’t actually commit adultery, you probably have still lusted. And if you are part of the Western economic system, you have coveted your neighbour’s good- maybe not his donkey, but perhaps his car or his conservatory!
Thinking that Christianity is about laws firstly is to get things the wrong way round. It begins with God: the God who freed his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. The God who frees us from death through Christ. We love, because God first loved us: and so Christ says to us, the first commandment is to love God. The Teacher of the Law knew that, for this is the wisdom of the ages- that God comes first, and that we then respond with love to God’s love. But if our love goes no further than saying that we love God, then it is no love at all: we cannot love God, if we do not love others.
Who is my neighbour, asks the Teacher of the Law, and Jesus replies- as Jesus often did, not with an answer, but with a story. A tale of a man in need, lying, battered and bleeding, on the roadside. A priest sees him, but walks on by. Now the priest is a good man, and if you’d asked him, he would have said he loved God. And no doubt he would have come up with a reason why he couldn’t stop to help. And so too with the Levite, who is a kind of clergyman a bit lower down the hierarchy. But because they both pass by, we know that they have failed in their duty, to God and to neighbour. And then Jesus says, ‘But a Samaritan who was travelling that way came upon the man’; and you can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from Jesus’ first listeners, good Jews to a man who heard the word ‘Samaritan’ and knew that this was the enemy coming down the road now. They probably thought he’d finish off this poor Jewish merchant. But no- Jesus shocks his listeners by describing how this foreigner, this member of another faith, this enemy of God (as the ultra-orthodox Jews might have though to the Samaritans) has pity, and looks after the battered Jewish merchant. ‘In your opinion’, asks Christ of the Teacher of the Law, ‘which one of these three acted like a neighbour toward the man attacked by the robbers?’ The Teacher of the Law finds that the word ‘Samaritan’ sticks in his craw, and he splutters out, ‘The one who was kind to him’. And Jesus replied, ‘You go, then, and do the same’.
Go and do the same. Not because it will save you. But because God has already saved you!
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo